Several minutes after suffering an 88-63 loss to the two-time WNBA champion Houston Comets this afternoon, the Washington Mystics were searching for answers.

The questions concerned the Mystics' defense, which played poorly for a second straight game, and the team's two best players -- Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray -- who combined to score just 15 points before a sellout crowd of 16,285 at Compaq Center.

"It was disappointing to play like this here," said Mystics forward Shalonda Enis, who had a team-high 13 points playing in her home state. "But to do it on national television, that was worse. Texas wasn't the only place that saw it.

"We need to stick within the game plan. We have too many times where we just dribble down and shoot it. It's okay when you're on, but other than that, we need to run the offense. We have to stick together and go with the game plan."

Holdsclaw, the Mystics' top draft pick, had a game-high 13 rebounds but scored just six points on 3-of-14 shooting. McCray, who led the team in scoring last season, had nine points on 2-of-13 shooting.

Conversely, two-time league most valuable player Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes combined to score 45 points -- more than half of their team's total -- to lead the Comets (2-0).

Still, Cooper (24 points) and Swoopes (21 points) were not the only factors that led to Washington's loss. The Mystics shot 39.7 percent, made only 14 percent of their three-pointers (1 of 7) and committed 21 turnovers that led to 26 Houston points.

Cooper scored just seven points on 1-of-14 shooting in a preseason loss to the Mystics in Knoxville, Tenn. But this one counted, and Swoopes, who defended Holdsclaw for most of today's game, took special pleasure in affecting the rookie's performance.

"I know people say it's just preseason, but I hate to lose any time," Swoopes said. "I got tired of picking up the paper and not seeing stories about the WNBA or the Washington Mystics, but just Chamique Holdsclaw. Don't get me wrong, she's a talented player, but there's more to the league.

"I read the comment that she said she didn't think people could defend her on the dribble consistently, so after we came back from Tennessee, I studied her. I tried not to give her any looks at the basket."

That is exactly what the Comets did against Holdsclaw and McCray, who combined for 40 points in their season opener against Charlotte on Thursday night. When Holdsclaw or McCray got past Swoopes or Cooper, 6-foot-5 center Polin Tzekova or 6-2 forward Tina Thompson (15 points) were there to alter their shots.

With Holdsclaw and McCray struggling, the only other effective Washington players were Enis and reserve forward Murriel Page, who had 10 points and eight rebounds. That wasn't nearly enough.

And because the Mystics have shown a lack of defensive intensity and little discipline while running their half-court offense -- they relied mainly on jump shots today.

"We're definitely seeing that game reaction is different than practice," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said. "We have to figure out who's really coming to compete on game day, and who really is investing and believing and fighting and doing it within the system and getting it done on game day. Our starters have to step up and just really exhibit their toughness and attitude. We can't just get that from the bench."

Although the Comets jumped to a 14-6 lead, Washington pulled within four points on three occasions, but in each instance Houston had a rebuttal.

Washington missed 11 of its first 14 shots of the second half, with Holdsclaw and McCray still struggling, and Houston made nine of its first 13 shots during a 20-7 run.

"We have the talent, but we have to be on all four cylinders," Holdsclaw said. "Once we can establish that, that will lead to great things. But you just hate to start a season off with all these losses. We're not going to win if we don't buy into the team philosophy a little more."

CAPTION: Two-time league MVP Cynthia Cooper drives past Mystics' Andrea Nagy. Cooper and Comets guard Sheryl Swoopes combined to score 45 points.

CAPTION: Tina Thompson, left, Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper (combined 60 points) help Comets raise 1998 league championship banner prior to tip-off.