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Miracle still in playoff race despite inconsistency

With two weeks remaining in the regular season in a tightly contested Eastern Conference race, the Orlando Miracle is turning out to be its own worst enemy.

After a strong start, including being within two games of first place just over two weeks ago, the Miracle has struggled. Orlando is 3-9 since July 12 and has lost four of its past five.

Four Miracle players scored in double figures in Wednesday night's win over Cleveland, which is when Orlando is at its best. But too often, the offensive burden falls on one or two shoulders.

Guard Nykesha Sales is the team's second-leading scorer (13.5), but is inconsistent. Center Taj McWilliams has been the leading scorer and rebounder in three of the past five games. Forward Sheri Sam went scoreless in three of six games, but scored 12 and 15, respectively, in the last two games. Point guard Shannon Johnson is the team's leading scorer (13.9), but more importantly has been its most consistent performer.

The Miracle's shooting has been up and down, but its defense has been strong, keeping it in many games.

But Orlando has not found more than one go-to player such as Houston's Cynthia Cooper or the Sparks' Lisa Leslie _ athletes who make a difference even on an off-night.

And yet, the Miracle remains a contender.

Wednesday night's victory over cellar-dweller Cleveland kept the Miracle in playoff contention. Orlando went to face lowly Washington (8-17) Thursday just one-half game out of a playoff spot _ and lost. That has been the Miracle's problem of late: lack of consistency and failure to take advantage of opportunities when they count.

The Miracle had back-to-back games with league-leading New York last week and, despite taking the Liberty to overtime at home, lost both. A win over Washington would have tied the Miracle for third place with Detroit as it prepares to play visiting New York on Monday night for the final time.

The Miracle is one of two expansion teams and has performed beyond most expectations. But the players continue to insist they not be judged as an expansion team, but as any other WNBA team.

Coach Carolyn Peck remains optimistic.

"Don't count us out yet," she said. "There is still a lot of basketball left to play. The focus is definitely there, it never went away. The only thing we are concerned with is us and how we play. We have to continue to go out and play a little bit better every time and if we do that, things will take care of itself."

GOOD MEMORIES: Former University of Florida star Merlakia Jones was back in the state Wednesday night when Cleveland visited the Miracle. Jones, who is Florida's all-time leading scorer, had an off-night, scoring just eight points on 4-for-10 shooting. Jones, who started earlier this season but is now coming off the bench, also had five assists and two rebounds in 26 minutes.

But despite the Rockers' loss, their 19th, Jones said she enjoyed being back in Florida playing again.

"I had fun," said Jones, the Rockers' leading scorer at 11.0. "It was kind of exciting coming back to the state of Florida, coming back close to where I went to school. Just coming back and playing in a familiar area was fun."

TAKING CHARGE: Sacramento Monarchs guard Ruthie Bolton-Holifield is making no apologies for summoning the team for a meeting after the Monarchs' 61-59 loss to Minnesota on July 27.

The Monarchs (15-10) are holding tight to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, just two games ahead of the Lynx. But before Friday's game against Detroit, Sacramento had lost four of six.

"I'd just started seeing bad things _ not just on the court but off the court, in our attitudes and our confidence," Bolton-Holifield said. "We got a lot of things on the table _ a lot of things that, if they'd been kept in, could have hurt us. We were being very critical of each other and that had to stop."