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Sparks Close In on Goal

WNBA: A 72-54 victory over the Lynx moves them one game away from home-court edge in playoff opener.


Penny Toler, an original Spark point guard, and Gordana Grubin, a new one, made the big plays Wednesday night, igniting the Sparks to a rousing 72-54 victory over Minnesota before 8,943 at the Great Western Forum.

The victory also improved the Sparks' chances of opening the WNBA playoffs at home.

With two games remaining in the regular season, the Sparks (19-11) are now one win or one Sacramento loss from home-court advantage in the postseason.

The Sparks, losers of five of their previous six when they ended their recent trip, have righted themselves.

They have now won two straight at the Forum, boosted perhaps by crowds larger than their average of about 7,100. The season's biggest crowd is expected Friday to see the Houston Comets.

And so for the Sparks, with two games to go, here are the remaining numbers they need to put that Aug. 24 one-game playoff with Sacramento in the Forum:

* If Sacramento loses its regular-season finale Saturday to Houston, the Spark-Monarch playoff will be at the Forum.

* If Sacramento beats Houston, Inglewood still gets the game if the Sparks win one of their remaining two, against Houston on Friday at the Forum, or against Utah at Salt Lake City on Saturday night.

Toler, beaten out of the starting point guard job in training camp, was the architect of a 16-0 run late in the first half that carried Los Angeles from a 20-18 lead to a 36-18 edge.

In the second half, Grubin, the point guard from Yugoslavia, took charge. She had 10 points in a five-minute stretch, boosting the Sparks to a 52-29 lead when she made a putback with 12 minutes to play.

Toler never looked better, fashioning one Spark fastbreak after another. She scored by herself on a steal and breakaway, dished off on a break for an Allison Feaster layup, scored on a jump shot and made a great assist to Mwadi Mabika.

It was also one of the Sparks' most comprehensive defensive games. During the 16-0 first-half run, the Lynx (14-16) went seven minutes without a field goal.

The Sparks nearly broke their club record of fewest points allowed, 50, set in 1997 against New York.

Here's how dominating the Sparks were: Lisa Leslie, nursing a head cold, was in early foul trouble and played only 14 minutes, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds.

Lynx Coach Brian Agler was impressed.

"It's going to be awfully tough for Sacramento to come in here and win," he said.

"In the conference finals, I still like Houston but if any team in the league can beat them now, it's L.A."

Spark Coach Orlando Woolridge, after calling it "uplifting," said his team is back in mid-season form, when it won 13 of 15 games.

"Our defense in the first five minutes set the tone," he said.

"That, and the fact we were able to get our bench involved. Penny was exceptional. She's a veteran, and this is the time you want your veterans to play like that."

Toler, on the bench, saw opportunity.

"Sitting, I could see we could run on this team," she said. "I made up my mind that when I got in, I was going to put fastbreak pressure on them and we were able to break it open."

Around the WNBA

Taj McWilliams scored 21 points, including 17 in a decisive first half, in Orlando's 93-81 victory over visiting Detroit before 12,039 that put the Miracle (14-16) one game ahead of the Sting (13-17) in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Both teams have two games remaining, including a rematch in the regular season finale in Detroit on Saturday. . . . Sheryl Swoopes had 24 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals as the Houston Comets closed out their regular-season home schedule with a 70-60 victory over the Phoenix Mercury before 11,497. The Comets (25-5) extended the WNBA's longest home winning streak to 12 games and ended the year 10-0 against the Western Conference at home. Phoenix (15-16) is 0-8 at Houston. . . . Utah Starzz center Margo Dydek was fined $300 by the WNBA for criticizing the officiating in Utah's 67-64 victory over Phoenix last Friday night. Dydek, who had 17 points, said after the game "The refs take all the fun out of the game. It is bad for the league." Dydek was called for three fouls in the first six minutes.

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