The Washington Mystics fumbled offensively and stumbled defensively in the final eight minutes to drop a 73-68 decision tonight to the expansion Orlando Miracle before an announced crowd of 10,218 at Orlando Arena.

The Mystics, who lost for the third time in four games, had taken a 59-56 lead with 8 minutes 18 seconds remaining on a steal and layup by rookie forward Chamique Holdsclaw, but scored only four points over the next 7:30.

Holdsclaw finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Nikki McCray had 17 points, and reserve Murriel Page added 10.

"I think our team showed a lot of fight," said Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch, whose team trailed 54-46 at one point in the second half. "We just didn't make the big defensive stops down the stretch when we needed them."

Orlando point guard Shannon Johnson tied the game at 63 with a three-pointer with 2:45 to play. Johnson put her team ahead 30 seconds later with a pair of free throws.

McCray hit a three-pointer, Washington's first points in more than three minutes, to cut the Mystics' deficit to 69-66 with 38 seconds left in the game, but they got no closer.

Johnson was the star of the game with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists for Orlando (2-3). A WNBA player has yet to record a triple-double in the league's three seasons, and Johnson's numbers are as close as any Miracle player has come in the team's first season.

"I've had the opportunity to play with and against Shannon and she is a tremendous competitor," Holdsclaw said. "She takes her team to another level. We struggled covering her one-on-one all night."

The game was tied at 34 at halftime, a fortunate result for the Mystics (1-4) considering that Johnson was consistently beating defenders into the shooting lane, creating easy scoring opportunities for herself or the Miracle's post players.

Orlando scored 28 of its 34 first-half points on layups or free throws. The only points from the perimeter were three-pointers from Nykesha Sales and Johnson. As for the Mystics, they had trouble getting into the lane. Although they matched Orlando for points in the key with 22, 12 of those came on offensive putbacks.

Much of the Mystics' offense consisted of dribbling around the perimeter and throwing up jump shots just before the shot clock expired. Holdsclaw and McCray were the only players to hit with any consistency, combining for 21 of the team's 34 first-half points.

It wasn't until reserve guard Rita Williams hit a three-pointer early in the second half that someone other than Holdsclaw or McCray hit a shot from the perimeter. Holdsclaw followed Williams's three-pointer with a fast-break layup to tie the game at 41 with 16:30 left.

However, the Mystics hadn't solved the problem of Johnson's penetration. The Miracle point guard fed Sales for a layup, made back-to-back layups, then had an assist on three straight layups to spark Orlando to a 54-46 advantage, the Miracle's largest lead of the game.

Washington finally put some defensive pressure on Orlando and turned around the game. Back-to-back steals and layups by Holdsclaw at the end of a 13-2 run gave the Mystics a three-point lead with 8:18 left in the game.