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Late loss motivating Orlando

A more experienced Miracle is hungry for the WNBA playoffs.

One game. Six points.

That's what stood between the Miracle and a playoff berth in last year's inaugural WNBA season.

And it's the memory that is motivating every returning player as the team prepares for this season.

Orlando's 74-68 loss to Detroit in the final game last season capped a year of unexpected achievement and missed opportunities.

The Miracle suffered through an up-and-down season before finishing 15-17 by winning five of its last six games.

Armed with several top returners and promising newcomers from a draft focused on shoring up the middle, the Miracle is looking to take that next step.

"This year is about as far as we want to take ourselves," guard Nykesha Sales said. "It has nothing to do with injuries or anything. We have a lot of players, a lot of versatility. We have a little bit of every position. It's just as far as we want to take ourselves."

Orlando opens the preseason at 7 tonight against Indiana in Mackey Arena at Purdue University. The Miracle will play two preseason games at home _ Wednesday (New York) and Friday (Indiana) _ before opening the regular season May 31 at Washington.

"Our goal is to be the best team we can be," coach Carolyn Peck said. "If we can do that, the rest will take care of itself. We want to improve every day, every time we step on the floor."

The Miracle returns four starters, including All-Star guards Sales and Shannon Johnson, who led the team in points per game (14.0) and assists (4.4). Johnson also led the league in minutes played with 35.8. Guard/forward Sheri Sam, who averaged 11.4 points, and center/forward Taj McWilliams also return.

With its returning players and the addition of Rutgers star Shawnetta Stewart, the Miracle is solid at guard. But with the loss of reserves Tari Phillips, Yolanda Moore and starter Andrea Congreaves, questions remain at the post.

"We wanted to get the best available players we could get in the draft, then we determined a list to get allocated players and that's where we really felt focused on that position," Peck said. "My staff looked at a lot of post players overseas and people that had experience and that's where we wanted to load up on our post game."

With that in mind, Orlando drafted 25-year-old Cintia Dos Santos, a 6-foot-4 forward/center who was a member of the silver-medal winning Brazilian national team in 1996. Dos Santos may be little-known here, but Orlando reserve Carla McGhee said by the end of the season fans will conclude Dos Santos was a steal as the No. 4 overall pick.

"I played against her (overseas) this season and one thing I love about her is her wingspan," McGhee said. "She can be sitting right here and I swear she could touch a line that far away. She's going to get the ball with her height and she's going to get you the rebound. Personally I think we needed some more height. She's a great athlete and if you don't put it up high, she will block the shot."

The Miracle practiced nearly two weeks without several starters who were completing championship play with various teams overseas.

"I don't think it will affect us much," Sales said. "The first few practices you just want to get your wind back and do a lot of different things, so I don't think it will be a big deal."

Orlando was sixth in attendance, averaging 9,801. Peck said she expects the enthusiasm to carry over into the second year.

"Everything was excitement all because it was new, but this year it's an excitement because we really feel good about what happened last year and now we can build on that," she said. "Now it's all a focus on improving, and I think that the good part about the loss to Detroit is we ended the season with a taste of what could have been. I think that's a great motivator for the hard work that's going to go into the preseason."

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