After the Washington Mystics were eliminated from playoff contention in a 27-point loss at Orlando Sunday night, a curious optimism emerged in the team's locker room.

"Our goal all along has been to finish strong," forward Murriel Page said. "And we still have a chance to do that."

The Mystics (12-18) have two games remaining, including tonight's matchup at Madison Square Garden against the New York Liberty, a team that has clinched a playoff berth.

The Mystics have defeated the Liberty (16-13) in all three meetings this season. New York is the only team in the Eastern Conference that the Mystics seem to have figured out. Washington has gotten the best of the Liberty in every possible situation this season: when the Mystics were winless (83-61 in New York on June 14), when they were slumping (71-63 on July 6 having lost five of six prior to that), and when they were surging (59-56 in overtime on Aug. 11 to win their fifth in a row).

"We've beaten them every month this season, under different circumstances, and I think that says something," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said after the Mystics' Aug. 11 win.

Against Orlando on Sunday, the Mystics' recently inspired post play suddenly disappeared. Despite Page's impressive shooting (4 of 5 field goals), the Mystics could not get her the ball often enough and instead shot several fadeaway jump shots that were off the mark. The Miracle's post players outscored their Mystics counterparts 30-8 and outrebounded them 11-4.

Darsch knows her post players need to be active and involved if the Mystics are to finish the season on a winning note.

"You see what happens when we're not the aggressor, so we need to be ready to play," she said. "We have two games left. We did not get where we needed to be or where we wanted to be. To finish high, we need two more wins. [That is] what we have to settle for at this point."

Settling for a strong finish is all the Mystics have left now, after Sunday's loss allowed Orlando (13-16) to move into a tie with Detroit (13-16) for the third and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Both teams have three games remaining, including two against each other that will most likely determine which team makes the playoffs.

And while it's possible that Washington, Orlando and Detroit could finish with identical 14-18 records, the Mystics would lose a tiebreaker with Orlando because of the Miracle's 3-1 record against Washington this season.

The Mystics players didn't want to believe that they were eliminated from the playoffs after Sunday's loss, and guard Nikki McCray even visited the press room after the game to sort out the standings. After realizing her team was out, she shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

"It just stinks," she said.

MYSTICS PREVIEW

Data: vs. New York Liberty.

Where: Madison Square Garden.

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: HTS.

Radio: WGAY-1260.

Records: Mystics 12-18, Liberty 16-13.

Injuries: Mystics F-C Penny Moore (shoulder) is on the injured list. Liberty F Rebecca Lobo (left knee) and G Carolyn Jones-Young (pregnancy and knee injury) are on the injured list.