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Sparks Are Lethargic in Loss at Phoenix

June 15, 1998|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Julie Rousseau, the Sparks' 5-foot-3 coach, was steamed. She looked like she wanted to put on gloves and box one of her six-footers.

She'd just watched her players bounce passes off each other's heads, throw up air balls and be seemingly cowed by an intense, attack defense in a 70-60 loss to Western Conference rival Phoenix on Sunday afternoon.

"We didn't shoot well, we didn't pass well and we didn't decide to play basketball until it was too late," she said, simmering in the quiet of the Los Angeles locker room.

"I know we're breaking in a lot of new players, but this . . . there was no excuse for this. I hope our young players learned quickly today what it's like [WNBA defenses] at this level, because it's going to be like this every game."

The Sparks (1-1) played well early and late, but hardly at all in the game's middle.

They held Phoenix to no field goals for the game's first five minutes 10 seconds, had a 10-4 early lead, then swooned.

With 48,166 one block away at the Arizona Diamondbacks' baseball game, 13,057 showed up at America West Arena to see the defending Western Conference champions go to 2-0.

Phoenix went into high gear defensively midway through the first half, holding the Sparks scoreless for over three minutes, while taking the lead, 15-14, at 10:38. The Sparks never caught them, but challenged Phoenix in the game's last minutes.

L.A. climbed back to trail, 23-21, but Phoenix put on a 16-2 run the rest of the half--capped by a full-court fast break score by Kristi Harrower, one of three Australians on the Phoenix team.

It was a long fall for the Sparks, who'd looked far more competent in winning their opener Thursday at Utah.

Oddly, Lisa Leslie, who'd supplied the only consistent offense in the game (18 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes), was sitting in the game's final seconds.

"Coach's decision," Rousseau said.

"What's the point? She was tired, I didn't want her getting hurt."

The Sparks trailed, 66-58, when Rousseau pulled Leslie with 28 seconds left.

Cheryl Miller, after her traditional postgame, bell-ringing speech to the crowd, was also unhappy.

"You have to have the ability to close down a game when you have a team on the ropes, and we didn't do that," she said. "We played great defense the last seven minutes of the first half but couldn't carry it over to the second half."

Indeed, as poorly as the Sparks played (they shot 38% and had 19 turnovers), they were in the hunt with 1:44 to go, when Tamecka Dixon's layup and free throw made it 62-56.

But after Michelle Griffiths made two free throws at the other end, Phoenix got the ball back and ran the shot clock to :04, when Jennifer Gillom made an 18-foot shot to make it 66-58 with 43 seconds left, securing the victory.

NBA Notes

WNBA president Val Ackerman attended the game and said beforehand that Tennessee standout Chamique Holdsclaw, a senior next season, will go through the next draft "just like everyone else" and wouldn't be assigned to a team. Holdsclaw has reportedly said she wants to play for the New York Liberty, and might sign with the ABL if unable to do so. . . . The Sparks play Tuesday night at Sacramento.

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