The race for the WNBA rookie of the year award was over almost before it started. From the moment she put on a Mystics jersey, forward became the heavy favorite.

So yesterday's announcement of the honor at MCI Center came more as a formality than a surprise.

"I know that coming into the WNBA as the number one draft pick, the expectations on Chamique were very, very high," WNBA player personnel director Renee Brown said. "I also know that it is not easy to meet all those expectations, but Chamique delivered. She really did. She handled everything so well. She handled it with grace, with poise and with the athletic performance of a true champion."

The vote wasn't close. Holdsclaw received all but three votes from a panel of sports writers and broadcasters. Detroit's Dominique Canty, Orlando's Nykesha Sales and New York's Tamika Whitmore each received a single vote. The award brings with it $5,000 and a Tiffany-designed crystal trophy.

"The number one goal was making it to the playoffs," Holdsclaw said. "I didn't do that. Rookie of the year is a great honor, but I was more focused on the team goals."

Holdsclaw entered the league having won a championship seven of the last eight years, including three NCAA titles at the University of Tennessee. Although she did help the Mystics win four times as many games as they did the previous season, Washington (12-20) failed in its playoff bid.

"It was weird because I was dealing with all these new things and for once, I didn't have that winning behind me," Holdsclaw said. "Usually when you have all that tension and stuff, you're winning. But here, a lot of tension around this team, around me and Nikki [McCray], hey, we're not winning the games we're supposed to be winning. That was probably the main disappointment. . . . This is the first time I've been on a team that wasn't winning all those big games, a team that didn't make the playoffs. It was kind of upsetting."

Holdsclaw was not the average rookie. There was a great deal of attention surrounding her debut. Many expected her to be the savior of what had been the league's worst franchise.

"I kind of had a bull's-eye on my chest," Holdsclaw said. "Everyone was after Chamique Holdsclaw. There was a lot of pressure and expectations. I just tried to go out there every night and help this team while a lot of people were out there gunning for me."

Holdsclaw will spend her offseason training with the U.S. national team while she continues to improve aspects of her game.

"I'm excited about the future and what I'll be able to do and accomplish here in Washington," Holdsclaw said. "I'm not even in the prime of my career. That will be three or four years away, probably."

When asked if she planned to stay in Washington, Holdsclaw broke into a wide grin.

"I love it here," Holdsclaw said. "I have a place here. The fans are great. This is the type of environment you want to play in."

CAPTION: Chamique Holdsclaw sparked Mystics' turnaround.