Introduced as representatives of the "most powerful city in the world," the WNBA Washington Mystics had trouble dealing with foreign visitors Sunday in an 86-69 loss to the Phoenix Mercury at the MCI Center.

In the first half, 6-foot-5 German center Marlies Askamp was the difficulty - she scored all 12 of her points in the half. In the second half, 6-8 Russian center Maria Stepanova came off the bench late to score all 11 of hers. She also had two blocked shots and six rebounds in 10 minutes.Australian Michele Timms contributed 10 points from the backcourt for the Mercury.

Despite the international flavor, the chief architect of the triumph was American-made - Florida graduate Bridgette Pettis.

Pettis delighted the crowd of 15,191 with a game-high 23 points - 17 in the second half - and made several nifty moves, including one behind-the-back scoring shot.

"I've been practicing that a while," Pettis said and laughed afterward. "When I get a chance to do it, I do it. I don't do it often because I've been trying to be team-oriented. But if coach says it's OK, I kind of feel free and go."

Bettis' coach, Cheryl Miller, knows a few things about playmaking. The Hall of Famer produced reels of personal highlight action in an outstanding all-American career at Southern Cal in the mid-1980s.

"She has some great moves," Miller said of Pettis. "And she's a fan favorite wherever she goes. So as long as she plays under control, if she has the lane, we want her to be aggressive."

Phoenix has certainly been tough out of the gate in the early portion of the WNBA season. Yesterday's win improved the Mercury to 6-1, which includes the only triumph to date over defending champion Houston.

"I don't know if we're going to be right there with them," Miller said. "But we just want to get better. That's our main goal right now."

Yesterday's 47.1 percent field goal shooting and 50 percent effort on three point attempts had to be encouraging.

When the Mercury were knocked out of the playoffs, 59-41, by New York last season, the squad shot a measly 22.4 percent from the field and 9.1 percent on three pointers.

Washington, meanwhile, is still trying to get untracked after falling to 1-6.

Although Phoenix led most of the way yesterday, the Mystics started to make things interesting when they closed the margin to 60-52 with 8 minutes, 52 seconds to play.

Then Phoenix, off the play of Pettis and Stepanova, went on a 19-4 run to shut the door.

"Washington has a lot of talent," Miller said, "and I wouldn't want to play them in the middle of the season."

Mustics rookie Muriel Page from Florida led Washington with 18 points, while Penny Moore and Nikki McCray each scored 15.

McCray is the former MVP of the American Basketball League who played for the champion Columbus Quest in 1996-97. She's now lost as many games in three weeks as the Quest did without her last winter during the regular season.

"I expected us to be competitive even though we were a new team," Washington coach Jim Lewis said. "We're dealing with human beings here. I'm concerned that some confidence may be beginning to erode and we have to make sure we can keep it up."