The Connecticut Sun was just a three-pointer away from sweeping Seattle in last season's WNBA Finals but eventually fell to the Storm in three games. Anyone expecting the Sun to experience a hangover this season, however, has been proven wrong.

The Sun (21-6) owns the best record in the WNBA heading into tonight's game at MCI Center against the third-place Washington Mystics (14-12) and holds a 51/2-game lead over second-place Indiana in an otherwise tightly packed Eastern Conference. Heading into the season, the Los Angeles Sparks, Detroit Shock and defending champion Seattle created far more buzz than the steady Sun.

Still, Coach Mike Thibault's team has been a study in excellence throughout the summer. After suffering a season-opening 78-67 loss to Detroit, the Sun won eight straight games, including message-sending blowout wins over Seattle and Los Angeles. Connecticut has dropped consecutive games once this season. And only Detroit, which has beaten the Sun three times, has had Connecticut's number.

"People might not think of them as having all kinds of great players, but they've been together for a while and they do a great job of playing as a team," said Mystics guard Coco Miller. "They have a lot of different people who can beat you. We're going to have to be at our best because these next two games are huge for us."

The Mystics and Sun haven't played since May 22 when Connecticut pulled out a 69-67 victory at MCI Center. The teams will meet again Sunday in Connecticut and one final time on Aug. 26 in Connecticut.

Tuesday's 64-51 home victory over the Sparks provided a nice illustration of what Connecticut is all about. Forward Katie Douglas scored a season-high 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, Nykesha Sales chipped in 16 points, second-year point guard Lindsay Whalen distributed six assists and the Sun held Los Angeles to 30.3 percent shooting.

Douglas and Sales are streaky scorers capable of carrying the Sun for a half or an entire game; Whalen is one of the game's bright young stars; and according to Mystics Coach Richie Adubato, Sun forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin is playing as well as any post player in the league. In Margo Dydek, the Sun also has the league's third-best shot blocker. Dydek, however, will miss at least the next two games because she is with the Polish national team.

The Mystics are coming off close home wins over Charlotte and Indiana and will try to win three games in a row for the first time since mid-June. With eight regular season games remaining, the Mystics are in a solid position to make the playoffs, but Adubato knows his team will be severely tested by a four-game road trip that begins Sunday in Connecticut and continues with stops in New York (14-13), Indiana (15-11) and Detroit (12-14).

Because Connecticut has all but wrapped up the East, Washington, Indiana, New York and Detroit will battle for three playoff spots. It's possible that the final spot could be determined by tiebreakers.

"The way I look at it, every game is a playoff game from here on out," Adubato said. "It starts [tonight] against Connecticut. Every one of these teams will be fighting to make the playoffs, so we have to play like a playoff team."

Mystics Note: Rookie point guard Temeka Johnson returned to practice yesterday after leaving town to attend the funeral of former LSU coach Sue Gunter, who died on Aug. 4. Johnson, who played for Gunter at LSU, maintained a close relationship with the Hall of Famer.

Johnson, who is averaging 9.5 points and a team-high 5.3 assists per game, played only 17 minutes during Sunday's win over Indiana and said she was still shaken by Gunter's death.

The Mystics will have to keep an eye on Connecticut's Nykesha Sales, left, and Katie Douglas -- streaky scorers who are capable of carrying the Sun.