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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

WASHINGTON'S TURNAROUND: A year ago, the Mystics couldn't wait for their humbling inaugural WNBA season to end.

Now, riding a franchise-record five-game winning streak, the team that limped to a forgettable 3-27 record in 1998 is eyeing the playoffs.

The Mystics (11-17), who have four games left and are within reach of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, have made a stunning turnaround.

"We really do believe that we are going to win," coach Nancy Darsch said. "We do believe that when it's a tight game that we'll find a way to win."

The Mystics made the most of a bad situation after their dismal debut. Those losses yielded the top pick in the draft, which they used to select forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who led Tennessee to three consecutive NCAA titles.

By teaming Holdsclaw with guard Nikki McCray, the league's fourth-leading scorer last year, Washington got what it lacked in its rookie season: the ability to score from the perimeter or from inside.

Darsch, the team's third coach in two years, quickly gutted the Mystics and remade the club.

Only four players from the inaugural season remain on the roster.

"The biggest difference is that we have system now that allows everybody to shoot the ball. It's not always just me and Chamique scoring," McCray said. "And we actually have better players here."

"Our goal is to finish strong and finish on a high, whatever that may be _ if that's the playoffs or not," Darsch said. "There's too many factors involved right now to put must-win pressure on ourselves."

But the Mystics are suddenly growing accustomed to winning.

"We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot," McCray said. "We want to finish this season strong."

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