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Sparks Appear to Be on Road to Nowhere

Pro basketball: L.A. loses third consecutive game and fifth in last six, 75-64 in Houston, as center Zheng does not make trip.


HOUSTON — The Sparks, already reeling from one blow, took two more on the chin Saturday and came out looking like a basketball team on the verge of being counted out.

The Sparks lost their third game in a row and fifth in their last six, a 75-64 loss to WNBA champion Houston.

And if last week's loss of Harvard rookie Allison Feaster (broken foot) wasn't enough bad news, there is more:

Haixia Zheng, the 6-foot-8 second-year pro from China, didn't make the trip. An exam Friday showed she has a right knee injury and her status won't be known until Monday at the earliest.

It was Los Angeles' second loss in eight days to the Comets, who lost an early 17-point lead but had more than enough ammunition to stave off two second-half rallies by the Sparks.

Houston improved to 6-1 and Los Angeles sagged to 2-5.

Here is the Sparks' problem: They are getting offensive production up front from only Lisa Leslie. Played tenaciously by former USC teammate Tina Thompson, Leslie had 14 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes. Forwards Octavia Blue and Sandra Van Embricqs had a combined seven points in 41 minutes.

This must be said too: Pam McGee, obtained from Sacramento in a trade for Linda Burgess, is so far a major disappointment.

She has been taken out of the starting lineup and did not score in four minutes against the Comets.

The Comets, before 15,358 at Compaq Center, won going away after quashing two Spark rallies.

The Sparks had an 8-6 lead, then Cynthia Cooper made four three-point baskets in an eight-minute span and Houston charged to a 36-19 advantage. In the run, Sheryl Swoopes and Thompson also made three-point shots.

Rookie point Erin Alexander made two three-point shots within 36 seconds and it sparked an 8-0 run that helped Los Angeles close to 59-55 with 10:18 left. Then Cooper and Janeth Arcain scored six points within 29 seconds and the Sparks never challenged again.

Now the medical wait on Zheng.

"The doctor said he could see possible arthritis and a possible ligament tear, but he wants to run more tests," General Manager Rhonda Windham said.

"We fought back against a very good team, and I'm happy about that," Coach Julie Rousseau said. "But we get close and can't close it out, can't make smart basketball decisions."

Added guard Penny Toler: "You make mistakes in crucial situations and beat some teams--but not Houston."

Spark Notes

The WNBA fined Cynthia Cooper $300 for publicly criticizing officials who worked the Comets' 69-66 loss at Phoenix on Wednesday. . . . The Sparks are trying out Australian point guard Annie LaFleur this week. . . . The Comets say goodbye this week to assistant coach Peggie Gillom, hired as head coach at Texas A&M, a post sought by former USC and Spark coach Linda Sharp. . . . The Sparks play at Sacramento Tuesday, then begin a four-game homestand Thursday against 7-2 Margo Dydek and the Utah Starzz.

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