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Sparks' Streak Is Over

WNBA: L.A. falls to Houston, 60-58, for first regular-season home loss in nearly two years. Cooper criticizes Leslie.

July 01, 2002|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Sparks and Comets claim it's just another game when they face each other.

So why does the winner walk away with an air of great satisfaction and the loser looks as if she just drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce?

Sunday, it was the Sparks who were left gagging, as they fell to Houston, 60-58, before a sold-out Staples Center crowd of 13,141.

The Sparks' loss ended their nine-game overall win streak and their league-record, regular-season 28-game home win streak. (The Sparks had dropped an 80-60 playoff decision to Sacramento at home last year.)

It was the first regular-season home defeat for the Sparks since July 11, 2000, when Portland beat them, 80-77, at the Forum.

Houston's victory was its sixth in a row, bringing the Comets (12-3) within a half-game of the Sparks (12-2) in the WNBA's Western Conference.

Since neither team could shoot Sunday--the Sparks flailed away at 39% (23 for 59) and Houston was worse at 32% (18 for 56)--a victory had to come from other avenues. Houston found them. First the Comets locked up the rebounds, 37-29 (including a 14-8 difference on offense). And at the free-throw line, the Comets made 21 of 25, including 14 of 15 from Sheryl Swoopes, who had a game-high 20 points. The Sparks made eight of 14 free throws.

"When you have two good teams coming together, you have to do the little things that make the difference," said Houston center Tiffani Johnson, who had a game-high 14 rebounds. "We had talked about limiting them on the offensive boards, going after all the deflections. L.A. is a great rebounding team, and they're very big, so we thought if we could limit them on the boards we'd have a good chance to win."

The plan was perfect. The Sparks, who had a 25-24 halftime lead, couldn't control the glass, so their offense had no rhythm.

And Houston, whose 63.7 scoring average ranks 14th (out of 16 teams), kept the pace of the game as slow as chess by mail.

The Sparks' Lisa Leslie, who had three fouls in the first half, and her fifth foul with 4:21 left in the game, was limited to seven points , one rebound and four turnovers in 32 minutes.

Spark Coach Michael Cooper didn't mince words about his star center: "It was the worst I've seen her in my three years here. She didn't come ready to play." When asked why, Cooper replied, "You have to ask her about that."

Leslie accepted Cooper's criticism calmly. "Being a team captain I have more responsibility when we lose," she said. "If he wants to point the finger at me, here I am."

Other Sparks spoke up in Leslie's defense.

"She should be allowed one bad game. Nobody's perfect," said Tamecka Dixon, who had 12 points. "We lost the game. We take it, learn from it, get better."

But DeLisha Milton, who had 14 points, went on to say what others were feeling. "We didn't have the second effort today. We were outhustled the entire game. And it really sticks in the craw when it happens against that team."

Led by Mwadi Mabika, who had a team-high 18 points, the Sparks had one spurt when they went from a 33-29 deficit in the second half to a 46-37 lead with 8:50 to play. But Houston did not let the gap grow wider than nine. The Comets reclaimed the lead at 52-50 when Johnson put back a missed shot by Swoopes with 3:55 remaining.

Although the Sparks tied the score two more times, they never regained the lead.

"We have to give a lot of credit to Houston. They put the bill to us," Cooper said. "This [loss] does not make or break our season. But we have three days of practice coming up, and we will work on some things."

Swoopes had about as bad a 20-point game as you can have. She made three of 20 shots from the field and did not make a field goal in the second half, but she made three free throws in the final 16 seconds that helped put the victory away.

"My shot wasn't there, so I had to find other ways to score," Swoopes said. "I will shoot three for 20 any day if we can get a win."

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