Three days after fracturing her left index finger, Chamique Holdsclaw was back on the court tonight, and although she contributed nine points in 24 minutes, it wasn't enough to prevent the Washington Mystics from losing to the Charlotte Sting, 63-56, before 7,819 at Charlotte Coliseum.

Charlotte's clutch free throw shooting in the final minute of the game sent the Mystics home with their second loss in as many nights. The Mystics (5-11) had a chance to pull within three points with 57.7 seconds to go, but Holdsclaw was fouled on a shot attempt and made only one of two free throws, cutting the Sting's lead to 51-47.

The Mystics had to resort to fouling, and the Sting made 13 of 14 free throws in the final minute to pull off the win.

"After the way we played [in a 78-68 loss to Detroit Friday night], this gives us some optimism," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said. "We had some good shots and some good looks, we just didn't get them to fall."

After Holdsclaw broke her finger at the WNBA All-Star Game in New York on Wednesday, a New York Liberty team doctor told her she could miss as many as three weeks. Later in the week, she estimated she would miss seven to 10 days. Tonight, she was in uniform an hour and a half before tip-off, passing the ball back and forth with Mystics assistant coach Melissa McFerrin.

Holdsclaw entered the game with 14 minutes 6 seconds left in the first half and appeared to have no trouble dribbling or going for any of her six rebounds.

Although she played with a metal brace on the finger, which is broken about a quarter-inch from her knuckle, she did not appear to be in pain. However, she made only 3 of 10 field goal attempts.

"You can't be a baby in this league," she said. "I get paid to play. It'll be sore, but it'll also be sore three weeks from now."

The Sting (7-8) was led by guard Andrea Stinson's 17 points and guard Dawn Staley's 14 points. The Sting had four players in double figures.

The Mystics were led by forward Shalonda Enis's 18 points and six rebounds and center Murriel Page's 14 points. Darsch said she wanted to make the post players the focal point of the offense, but the rest of the Mystics starters shot 5 for 22.

Washington also shot only 62.5 percent from the free throw line; Charlotte shot 87.5.

The first half was marked by long scoring droughts on both sides. After a jumper by Holdsclaw gave the Mystics a 10-8 lead, they missed nine straight shots and turned over the ball four times.

"We were only playing offense for 10 seconds every trip, and Charlotte only had to play defense for 10 seconds," Darsch said. "We were just too anxious."

The Sting wasn't much better. After taking a 17-10 lead on guard Stephanie McCarty's three-pointer from the corner, the team missed eight of its next nine shots, coupled with four turnovers and a traveling violation. A jump shot by Enis followed by a layup by Holdsclaw with 31 seconds left gave the Mystics a 20-19 halftime lead. After shooting 9 for 26 (34.6 percent) for the half, the Mystics tied a franchise record for fewest points in the first half, matching last year's 20-point showing against Phoenix.

Washington opened the second half by hitting its first seven shots. Enis worked her way inside for a pair of baskets, then Page hit a layup, then McCray drilled a three-pointer and made a finger-roll layup moments later to give the Mystics a 31-28 lead.

But the Mystics' lead didn't last long. A layup by Stinson in transition off a Mystics turnover gave the Sting a 42-40 lead. The Sting built a 50-45 advantage with 1:20 left. With 1:13 to go, Enis stepped out of bounds after catching a pass from McCray, and the Mystics turned over the ball on a key possession.

"We're getting so close, it's what we keep talking about," Enis said. "We have to keep believing. We can't ever give up. We just have to take this and work that much harder."

CAPTION: She shoots, she scores: Chamique Holdsclaw, despite broken finger, puts in two. In her return, she had nine points in 24 minutes.