Sheryl Swoopes wasn't as quick Tuesday night as she was during the Olympics a year ago. She couldn't jump as high as she could back in '93 when she was the college basketball player of the year at Texas Tech. Her shot wasn't as soft or true as it was a few years ago when Nike named a shoe after her - which was a first for a female athlete.

Swoopes is working herself back into playing shape after giving birth to a son, Jordan Jackson, on June 25. Still, she played like a star Tuesday night. In her fourth WNBA game after returning from maternity leave, Swoopes scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Houston Comets' 76-56 victory over the Utah Starzz at the Summit in front of an announced crowd of 7,084."I was excited to come back," said Swoopes. "I've just been waiting for the moment, and tonight was my night."

The Starzz, owners of the WNBA's worst record, fell to 6-17 with five games remaining. Houston improved to 16-7.

Swoopes, along with Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie and New York's Rebecca Lobo, was a WNBA advertising star - you know, the incessant "We Got Next" spots - before the league even got started. But she hadn't scored a single point in a WNBA game until Tuesday against the Starzz. She had been held scoreless in a combined 28 minutes in her first three games for Houston.

But after the Starzz started quick-ly Tuesday - taking a 12-5 lead at one point - it was Swoopes to the rescue.

The Starzz did a good job defensively against Cynthia Cooper, the leading scorer in the league, in the first half. Cooper scored just two points. Swoopes, however, did the damage. She scored her first points as a Comet with 10:32 remaining.

"After I hit the first bucket I felt a big burden lifted off me," she said.

Swoopes added eight more points by intermission. Her 10-point half helped the Comets rebound to take a 35-31 lead into the locker room.

"We followed our game plan and held Cooper in check for a half," said Utah coach Denise Taylor. "Swoopes gave them a big boost, however."

The Comets put the game away mid-way through the second half with a 14-0 run to take a 63-40 lead with six minutes remaining.

"The team unraveled," said Taylor.

Added Starzz guard Tami Reiss, "We're a little frustrated because we're playing better but have yet to see the results."

While Swoopes continued to play well in the second half, it was Cooper who really lit it up. Cooper, a leading candidate to win the WNBA's first MVP award with a 22-points-per-game average, scored 19 in the second half to finish with 21 on the night.

The biggest bright spot for the Starzz was the play of forward Wendy Palmer, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds on her 23rd birthday.

But the big news was the play of Swoopes.

"If they can get that kind of production from (Swoopes), they're going to be fierce," said Reiss.

Added Palmer, "It's remarkable to see what she's done. To become a mom and come back to the court. I hope to be a mom and a player some day, and her transition has been an inspiration."

Utah will have a couple of days off from games before hosting Los Angeles Saturday night in the Delta Center.