During the Washington Mystics' five-game unbeaten streak that has propelled them within one game of a playoff berth, Coach Nancy Darsch has marveled at her team's confident defense. But as the Mystics prepared to play the Los Angeles Sparks at MCI Center yesterday, Darsch was blunt when asked how the Mystics' front court matches up against that of the Sparks: "Not well," she said.

As important as this game is to the Mystics (11-17), who have four games left to try and secure the third playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, there are playoff implications for the Sparks (17-10) as well. Los Angeles holds the third playoff spot in the Western Conference, a half-game behind Sacramento, but has lost three consecutive games.

The principal problem the Mystics face against Los Angeles is how to defend center Lisa Leslie. During the team's only previous meeting this season, an 81-64 Sparks win in Los Angeles on July 31, the 6-foot-5 Leslie and the Sparks' other front-court players dominated the smaller Mystics. Leslie and forwards DeLisha Milton and La'Keshia Frett outscored Mystics center Murriel Page and forward Shalonda Enis 37-14.

But Page and her teammates point out that the game was two weeks ago, and that both teams have changed. While the Mystics have gone on a five-game winning streak, the Sparks have lost two of their last three game by at least 22 points.

"All season long people have been saying that our post players can't guard anyone," Page said. "But we can play against anybody. . . . I think she [Leslie] did pretty well, but I think I did a good job against her."

The 6-2 Page and Enis, 6-1, are smaller than most of their opponents, but the Mystics have played better defense recently. In a 59-56 overtime win over the New York Liberty on Wednesday, the Mystics held New York's starting post players to 7-of-32 shooting and outrebounded the Liberty 49-38. Center Kym Hampton, who outweighs Page by 50 pounds, didn't make a field goal against her.

In the game before that, the Mystics held Cleveland to 45 points.

"Our team, at some point, found itself as far as team defense is concerned," Darsch said. "It started against Detroit [a 75-70 win], and it's continued since then. Right now we're just a lot more confident and we're not struggling on where to go."

Backup center Heather Owen, who spent almost half the season on the injured list after shoulder surgery, has been another boost, emerging as Page's primary backup. The 6-5, 212-pounder has shown the energy late in games that many of the other players seem to have lacked.

"She kept her conditioning up during when she was hurt, and that's showing now," Darsch said.

But it is still uncertain whether the Mystics can successfully defend Leslie, who is ranked in the league's top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.

"I don't think that Lisa will have a weight advantage," Darsch said. "Murriel has played with her and against her, and that's worth something. Murriel has the quickness and she is able to play physical against Lisa. But [Leslie is] 6-5, and that makes it tough."

Los Angeles is "very athletic and big and they sprint down the floor," Darsch said. "But we have a much higher confidence than we did when we played them before, and that confidence is a big factor."


Data: vs. Los Angeles Sparks.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 4 p.m.

Tickets: Available.

TV: WRC-4, WBAL-11.

Radio: WTEM-980.

Records: Sparks 17-10, Mystics 11-17.

Injuries: Mystics F-G Penny Moore (shoulder) is on the injured list. The Sparks reported no injuries.