She's been a starter, then a substitute, but she's never stopped running the court hard. And thanks to her hustle and skills, forward Murriel Page, the only Mystic to start every game last year, will start for the first time this season when Washington plays the Phoenix Mercury tonight at MCI Center.

Page is replacing Alessandra Santos de Oliveira in part because Page gives Washington a better matchup against Phoenix forward Marlies Askamp.

"Marlies does a tremendous job of running the floor, and obviously that's one of Murriel's strengths as well," Mystics assistant coach Melissa McFerrin said. "We felt like we had to match that foot speed down the floor. [Phoenix guard] Michele Timms and Marlies played together a lot in Germany and they have a pretty good connection when it comes to Timms coming down the floor and looking long for Askamp. We have to defend that, so that's where the decision comes from."

McFerrin said the decision was based on the matchup and not Santos de Oliveira's performance to date. Asked after last Friday's home loss to Detroit if Santos de Oliveira was in jeopardy of losing her job, Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said, "Not at this point."

"Oh, no, we're pleased with Alessandra," said McFerrin, whose team is 1-4. "We're pleased with the presence she gives us on the block and rebounding."

Darsch decided Page would come off the bench only days before the season opener on June 10, but Page has played her way onto the court. She is averaging 10.2 points per game and eight rebounds, and is the only Mystic shooting better than 50 percent (65.5).

"To be honest, Murriel has been playing well enough to be a starter," McFerrin said. "But I don't want to make that bigger than it is. That was a matchup decision."

Page knows the transition game, how to initiate it with precision and how to finish, coaches said.

"We've always had to tell our players to keep an eye on her because of her ability in the transition game," said Orlando assistant coach Rick Stukes, who coached against Page when she was at Florida and he was at Auburn. "She knows that the stars on the Mystics will get the points and she knows what role to play."

Darsch "seems to see something in the other team that tells her she wants me out there," Page said. "They have some quick post players who love to run the floor. My transition defense is there. Will I start the next game? I don't know."

Even with her speed, the 6-foot-2, 160-pound Page has a challenge against Askamp, who is 6-5 and 198. Askamp can play with finesse in transition or with power in the low post.

"One thing about Phoenix is that they play very physical, so that probably works against Murriel because of her slight build," McFerrin said. "They do, however, play behind the post, so that will at least allow us to get some entries into the post and allow the post players to work."

The Mystics, who have lost two in a row, and the Mercury (1-3) know that a 30-game season can slide away quickly, so they need victories.

"There's frustration at some level, because, you know, we were so close," Darsch said. "I think we could have played better and beaten Detroit and we could have played a little better and beaten Orlando. We just haven't found the consistency to make it happen."

MYSTICS PREVIEW

Data: vs. Phoenix Mercury.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

Radio: WGAY-1260.

Tickets: Available.

Records: Washington 1-4; Phoenix 1-3.

Injuries: Mystics F Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list. Mercury F Michelle Griffiths (pregnancy) is on the injured list.