Mystics 71, Liberty 59

The Washington Mystics entered the final five-game stretch of their season last night with playoff hopes still flickering and the controversy surrounding the absence of their best player showing no signs of abating.

Without three-time all-star forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who will miss the remainder of the season with what she has described as a "personal medical issue," the Mystics defeated the New York Liberty, 71-59, before 10,037 at MCI Center.

The Mystics (14-16), buoyed by 26 points from rookie Alana Beard, trail New York (14-14), Charlotte and Indiana (both 15-15) by one game with four to play. The top two teams in the WNBA's Eastern Conference earn playoff berths.

The win was the Mystics' second straight. Washington improved to 4-3 without Holdsclaw and 10-6 at home.

Meantime, Mystics players and coaches went out of their way to refute a Washington Times report in Thursday's editions that stated Holdsclaw's absence was due to a rift with Coach Michael Adams.

Team president Susan O'Malley, making her second statement in as many days on the issue, said: "Chamique is on the injured list with a personal medical issue," the statement said.

After the game, Mystics personnel consultant Pat Summitt, who coached Holdsclaw at the University of Tennessee, also addressed the matter: "The idea that Chamique is not on the active roster due to a disagreement with Coach Adams is completely false. She is on the injured list for medical reasons."

Mystics forward Murriel Page, who played with Holdsclaw for five seasons and considers Holdsclaw a close friend, said Holdsclaw "respects" Adams and finds him "caring."

"They have a coach-player relationship but they are very friendly," Page said. "There were never any fights or problems."

Page said that there are a few people on the team with whom Holdsclaw has shared what is wrong and she is one of them.

"I have to respect her privacy but I can say it's definitely not because of any fight [with Adams]," Page said. Without Holdsclaw in the lineup, the Mystics regrouped with renewed determination to make postseason.

"Any coach would want the 19 points and 10 rebounds that Holdsclaw gives you," Adams said. "We don't have a player that can break the defense down and get their own shots beyond Alana Beard, so we have to get some easy baskets by getting the ball to our post players."

Against the Liberty, the tandem of Nakia Sanford and Chasity Melvin claimed the territory under the basket for themselves, and Washington's back-court players stifled New York's outside shooters.

Sanford finished with the second double-double of her career, scoring 11 points and tied her season high for rebounds with 13. In Tuesday's victory over Sacramento, Sanford was held to one field goal, but also grabbed 13 rebounds.

"There's no pressure because nobody expects us to do it," said Sanford. "This is an opportunity for some players to prove themselves in the limelight. Some of us will get more touches and that will let them show what they can do."

* SPARKS 81, SHOCK 63: Lisa Leslie recorded the third triple-double in WNBA history, finishing with 29 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks in the victory in Los Angeles.

Nikki Teasley added a career-high 25 points for the Sparks, who won for the eighth time in nine games and extended their lead over second-place Seattle in the Western Conference to 31/2 games.

* STING 74, MONARCHS 69: Allison Feaster converted two free throws in the final seconds and finished with 23 points as host Charlotte moved into a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference. Feaster converted two free throws with 11.5 seconds left as the Sting rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit and moved into a tie with Indiana and New York atop the conference.

* SILVER STARS 77, COMETS 72: LaToya Thomas scored a career-high 26 points and host San Antonio snapped a nine-game losing streak. Adrienne Goodson scored 14 points, Margo Dydek added 13 and Thomas finished with a team-best 10 rebounds for the Silver Stars, who won for the first time since July 15.

Alana Beard scores two of her 26 points. Mystics refuted a report speculating on Chamique Holdclaw's absence.