The Washington Mystics placed star forward Chamique Holdsclaw on the injured list yesterday, meaning she will miss at least three games. It is the first time the team has put even a vague timetable on Holdsclaw's return from an undisclosed "personal medical issue."

"Right now, we're not sure" when she will play again, Coach Michael Adams said. "After those three games we'll see where we stand with her."

Holdsclaw, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, missed three of the team's past four games before the WNBA went on a month-long Olympics hiatus Aug. 1. She released a statement on the team's Web site yesterday.

"I'm worried that the fans will misinterpret my recent absence from the team coupled with media reports and think that I'm unhappy here in Washington or with my team. That is not the case," Holdsclaw said in the statement, which seemed to be directed to the team's fans. "The organization and my teammates understand that I value my privacy, so please do not be offended by the lack of information or further information regarding this situation."

In Holdsclaw's absence, the Mystics (12-14) appear ready to allow rookie Alana Beard to shoulder the scoring load. The timing is crucial, with the team just 11/2 games out of first place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference, yet only a half-game out of last entering the season's final eight games. The stretch starts tonight at MCI Center against Indiana (12-15).

"We didn't expect her to begin taking over games," Adams said. "Now that her confidence level is sky high, she is making her presence felt. Her teammates respect her and any time she feels she has an advantage we'll get her the ball."

Beard, the second overall pick in last spring's draft after an outstanding career at Duke, has struggled at times adjusting to the professional game. There were occasions earlier this season when she was in tears following games.

Now she sounds ready to fill the void left by Holdsclaw.

"I have never doubted for a second that this team could win without Chamique," Beard said.

Holdsclaw was averaging 19 points and 8.3 rebounds before her absence. Her departure has coincided with Beard's offensive emergence. After being held scoreless during a July 15 game against the Charlotte Sting, Beard finished the next eight games in double figures, including 27 points in a loss to the Sacramento Monarchs.

"I'm a true believer in that you need to get knocked down sometimes before you can come back and make things happen," said the 5-foot-11 Beard.

In the team's two final games before the break, Beard led the Mystics to victories over the Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun, a mini-winning streak that the rest of the team is holding up as proof that it can win without Holdsclaw.

In each game, four players scored in double figures, a departure from earlier victories in which Holdsclaw typically finished with 20 points and everyone else had a basket or two.

"I think I've found my niche but in no way am I doing this alone," Beard said. "There are so many players that can do so many things on this team. It's not all resting on me."

The Mystics also are hoping to benefit from having sent none of their players to the Olympic Games. Unlike other teams who have had key members in Athens, the Mystics have been able to practice as a unit for the better part of the past month.

"We have everybody except for Chamique," said forward Nakia Sanford. "But we've been practicing with the same unit that will be on the court September 1st and that's an advantage."

In addition, five of the six teams the Mystics face over the final eight games own losing records. After opening against Indiana, which has lost its last six games, Washington plays the Fever again Saturday, and then faces Sacramento, New York, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix and finishes the regular season in New York.

Said Sanford, "I'm already planning my postseason around us going to the playoffs."

"We didn't expect her to begin taking over games," Coach Michael Adams said of Alana Beard, above, who has suddenly flourished. HOLDSCLAW