After coming within a shot of winning the WNBA championship last year, the Connecticut Sun hope to use the experience to their advantage this postseason.

Connecticut steamrolled through the regular season, improving by eight games from a year ago and setting the Eastern Conference record for wins with a 26-8 mark.

“We are definitely ahead of last year because we know what to expect,” coach Mike Thibault said. “We know now that even the little things are very important when it comes to winning a championship. Turnovers, rebounds and fouls are all very essential.”

Connecticut and the West champion Sacramento Monarchs (25-9) were dominant in the regular season and figure to be the teams to beat in the playoffs. Both had their postseasons ended by the defending champion Seattle Storm last year.

Sacramento fell in the West finals, the Sun in the championship series.

“We are a lot more confident,” Connecticut forward Nykesha Sales said. “Last year we always had to prove ourselves. This year we know what we need to get to the championship.”

The playoffs get under way Tuesday night, with the New York Liberty (18-16) hosting the Indiana Fever (21-13) in a best-of-three East matchup, and Seattle (20-14) visiting the Houston Comets (19-15) in a West series.

Connecticut opens a tough first-round series at Detroit on Wednesday night. The Shock (16-18) won three of the teams’ four meetings during the regular season, and start five All-Stars.

“I don’t think it means much because we took three out of four from them the year before,” Thibault said. “The two teams through the course of the last two years are usually separated by a couple of baskets each game. It comes down to who executes.”

Sacramento will face fourth-seeded Los Angeles (17-17) in Game 1 of their series Wednesday in a rematch of last year’s opening-round series. The roles are reversed this year, however, as the Monarchs were the No. 4 seed when they upset a Sparks team that had the league’s best record.

“There are no sure things in the WNBA,” Sacramento coach John Whisenant said. “It’s been two straight years that we knocked off a higher seed in the playoffs, so we know how slippery that can be.”

Los Angeles, loser of three of four to the Monarchs in the regular season, has been inconsistent due to injuries to forward Mwadi Mabika and point guard Nikki Teasley. The Sparks also had a coaching change earlier this month, when first-year boss Henry Bibby was replaced by Joe Bryant.

“We’re just happy to be in the playoffs,” Los Angeles’ Chamique Holdsclaw said. “It’s a whole new season now. We’ve got to go out there and bring our best game from this point on. Sacramento (Monarchs) is a good team, but they’re a team that we know we can beat.”

Despite winning five of their last seven games, the Sparks needed a loss by Phoenix on Saturday to get in the playoffs.

“They have a new attitude about the game again, and they’ve tried to gather themselves and dominate like they have in previous years,” Sacramento’s Yolanda Griffith said. “We just have to play as a team (and) not have a lot of turnovers against them.

“We have to take care of what we need to take care of – defense, offense – and then go from there. It’s the playoffs, both teams are 0-0.”

Seattle begins defense of its title with another second-place finish and the same record as last year despite losing two starters and a key role player in the offseason. Lauren Jackson played like an MVP again, Sue Bird led the league in assists and Janell Burse and Iziane Castro Marques stepped up in supporting roles.

“It’s a different group, (and) something a lot of people didn’t think we could do,” Bird said. “It’s pretty amazing. we’re pretty proud of it, and we also know that our work is not done.”

The Comets, winners of the first four WNBA championships, return to the playoffs after missing out last year for the first time since the league began play in 1997. Sheryl Swoopes led the league in scoring, and Tina Thompson returned for the final month after giving birth just before the season started.

The Fever set franchise record for overall victories and home wins (14). Indiana trailed only Sacramento’s 15-2 home mark, and won three of four from New York.

The Liberty struggled around .500 for much of the season before a late five-game winning streak. However, they followed that with their second three-game skid to end the season. All-Star center Ann Wauters is out for at least the first round due to a broken bone in her right hand.

AP-ES-08-29-05 1819EDT


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