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Avengers Make Big Strides

Graziani struggles early but recovers to lead L.A. from 20-point deficit to 73-72 win over arena football champ San Jose.

February 10, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The Avengers finally lived up to their name on Sunday -- and recorded the most significant victory in franchise history.

After getting beaten twice last season by the San Jose SaberCats, the Avengers rallied from a 20-point deficit to defeat the defending ArenaBowl champions, 73-72, before an announced crowd of 14,992 at Staples Center.

Quarterback Tony Graziani, who set a team record by throwing four interceptions, completed a two-point conversion pass to receiver Greg Hopkins with one second remaining for the victory.

It was the greatest comeback in the franchise's short history.

"This, by far, is the biggest win," said offensive specialist Chris Jackson, the only remaining player from the Avengers' first season in 2000. "With our momentum and where we want to go, this is a step in the right direction."

The Avengers are 2-0 and in sole possession of first place in the Western Division, both franchise firsts.

"This just proves what we were believing ... that we have a good football team here," Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss said. "But we still have a long way to go."

It looked as if it was going to be a long day for the Avengers when the SaberCats, who had won 17 of their last 18 games and five of six against Los Angeles, scored 28 unanswered points to take a 41-21 lead in the second quarter.

Through much of the game, Graziani looked nothing like the quarterback who tied a league record for passing efficiency in last week's season-opening victory over Las Vegas.

The Avengers led, 21-13, at the end of the first quarter before Graziani was intercepted on three consecutive possessions. Clevan Thomas and Sam Hernandez returned two in a row for touchdowns to give San Jose (1-1) a 34-21 lead and Thomas' second interception set up James Hundon's 11-yard touchdown reception that extended the lead to 20 points.

"I couldn't believe what was happening," said Graziani, who completed 25 of 38 passes for 345 yards and seven touchdowns. "Anything that could have gone wrong for me in that second quarter did."

Said Hodgkiss: "I felt like it was slipping from us."

The Avengers trailed, 55-38, at the end of the third quarter before rallying within three and then four points in the fourth. But Daron Alcorn's 21-yard field goal with 32 seconds left gave San Jose a 72-65 lead and set the stage for the dramatic finish.

Kevin Ingram returned the kickoff 43 yards to the San Jose 13. On fourth and six from the nine, Graziani completed a pass to Jackson for an eight-yard gain.

Graziani was stopped on a sneak before fullback Mathias Vavao bulled his way into the end zone to make it 72-71 with one second left.

Before the drive began, Hodgkiss said, he was planning to go for the tie and send the game to overtime if the Avengers scored. But with only one second left, he changed his mind.

"I thought we had the momentum there," he said. "I felt like we had a very good play and we hadn't run it yet in the game."

Graziani drew San Jose offside with his snap count but continued the play.

"I knew we had a free play," he said.

Graziani drifted to his right as he looked for Jackson, then rolled back to his left and found Hopkins on one knee just inside the end zone.

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