The news at first was numbing to Murriel Page, the fast-running, fast-talking power forward who started every game last season and led the Washington Mystics in rebounding. But there she was, just a few days before the Mystics' 1999 season opener, hearing from first-year coach Nancy Darsch that she would not be a starter for practically the first time in her basketball career.

But the adjustment period took less than a day. And before any of her teammates could recognize her disappointment, Page was dominating in practice again. In the Mystics' first three games, she has done just that to her opponents and has been the team's top reserve.

Entering tonight's game against the Detroit Shock at MCI Center, Page's 70.6 field goal percentage leads the Mystics (1-2) and is second in the WNBA. She is the inside energizer for the Mystics, grabbing 7.7 rebounds and scoring 11 points per game. Page, along with Detroit native Markita Aldridge and point guard Rita Williams, have given Washington something it lacked last season -- talent in reserve.

"Murriel's kind of our Marcus Camby," Darsch said, comparing Page to the New York Knicks' slender big man. "Murriel's done a great job of coming off the bench and giving us a spark. She's showing her overall body conditioning and strength. She's tough-nosed down there.

"We haven't really talked about her not starting; Murriel has just accepted it all on her own."

Initially, Page, a former University of Florida star who was sixth in the league last season with 6.9 rebounds per game, had to concentrate on staying upbeat. After all, she had been so impressive as a WNBA rookie that she was selected to play on the USA Women's Winter European Tour team. Now, she had to take a different role.

"It was kind of hard, because I was used to being a starter, but I just had to tell myself, `Look, you're still on the team,' because some people don't have that opportunity," Page said. "I was blessed to be on the team out here playing, so I can't complain. Just because I'm not in the starting lineup doesn't mean I'm not playing. I know I'm going to get a chance.

"I'm going in to make a difference. Whenever I go in, she knows that I'm trying to lift the team. Someone has to be able to tell that she's made a substitution."

Page was moved to a backup role this year largely because of the arrival of 6-foot-1 forward Shalonda Enis, who played in the American Basketball League. Enis, a physical player, has come in and made strong contributions.

But Enis knows what it's like to defend Page in practice.

"She's getting a lot more physical," said Enis, a former Alabama star who played against Page in college. "I told her, `Don't make a hard move, and then go up soft with it.' I think she's taken that and just gone with it. She's gotten a lot quicker -- she loves to get down the floor and get those layups -- and I love her rebounding skills. She's got ups, like, out of this world."

MYSTICS PREVIEW

Data: vs. Detroit Shock.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

Tickets: Available.

Radio: WGAY-1260.

Records: Washington 1-2; Detroit 2-1.

Injuries: Mystics C Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list. Shock F Dominique Canty (ankle) is questionable and F Lesley Brown (thigh) is on the injured list.

CAPTION: Murriel Page, right, is a physical presence in the lane as Kym Hampton can attest. "She's tough-nosed down there," says new coach Nancy Darsch.