The number of playoff appearances by the Washington Mystics was incorrect in a story in the Sept. 19 Sports section. The Mystics have made the playoffs three times. (Published 9/20/04)

Charging from last to first in the Eastern Conference standings in the final two weeks of the season, the Washington Mystics have pulled off a rally unprecedented in the franchise's seven-year history.

Friday night's come-from-behind win over the Phoenix Mercury was the Mystics' fifth consecutive victory and secured the team's first postseason bid in two years and only the second since 1998.

With Washington, Connecticut and New York each at 17-16 and in a three-way tie for first, the Mystics could win the conference today with a victory over the Liberty coupled with a loss by the Sun. The Mystics' best prior finish was third (2002).

"We think we can win the championship," said Washington forward Murriel Page.

Only two weeks ago, few around the league gave the Mystics much of a chance to finish better than they did last year, which was dead last.

On Sept. 4, Indiana overwhelmed Washington with a 69-42 blowout, dropping the club's record to 12-16. Six games remained in the season, the club was four games under .500 and its longest winning streak was three.

What appeared to seal the club's fate was the Sept. 8 announcement that Chamique Holdsclaw, the team's marquee player, would sit out the remainder of the year with a "personal medical issue."

But the Mystics have endured and on the last day of the season find themselves among three teams vying for first place. Lacking a clear favorite means that "the East is wide open," said Page, and according to her that means her team's chances of playing for the WNBA championship are as good as anyone's.

Going into today's game against the Liberty -- which has not beaten the Mystics in three games this season -- Washington guard Alana Beard is making a late push for rookie of the year honors.

Beard struggled in the first half of the season while Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, believed to be the front-runner for the award, has played well throughout. But Beard, who has averaged more than 20 points a game during her club's winning streak, has driven her team into the playoffs while the loss to the Mystics has all but eliminated Taurasi and the Mercury from playoff contention.

Facing each other for the second time this season, and with their respective teams' playoff hopes on the line, Beard outperformed Taurasi.

Taurasi finished with more points (25-23) and assists (5-2) but Beard hit all eight of her free throws, compared to Taurasi's 1 of 3, and outpaced the former Connecticut star in rebounds (9-6), steals (3-1) and blocked shots (1-0).

"Beard is finishing up strong and helping her team into the playoffs," said Washington Coach Michael Adams. "Earlier in the season, she wasn't getting as many minutes as Taurasi did. I'll take my rookie ahead of their rookie any day of the week."

"We think we can win the championship," says Mystics forward Murriel Page.