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Sparks Ring Up a Victory, Barely

After celebrating 2002 WNBA title, L.A. struggles against Sacramento but stays unbeaten with 63-61 win in home opener.

June 06, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The rings did fit.

Large and heavy, white 18-karat gold encrusted in white, lavender, teal and canary diamonds, the Sparks' reward for winning the WNBA title last year, their second in a row, was a bauble worthy of a champion.

Then the Sparks spent the rest of Thursday night looking like any other WNBA team. Yet they are still the league's only unbeaten team, after scrambling to a 63-61 victory over the Sacramento Monarchs in the home opener before 10,219 at Staples Center.

The Sparks improved to 5-0, while the Monarchs dropped to 2-3. As for the game, there was nothing artistic about it.

The Sparks shot an OK 44.4% (24 of 54) and outrebounded Sacramento, 35-27. But they also committed 26 turnovers, had quiet nights offensively from Lisa Leslie (10 points before fouling out) and DeLisha Milton (four points), and were hanging on at the final buzzer.

"Obviously I thought we'd play better," Spark Coach Michael Cooper said. "But due to all the excitement with the rings and everything, I'm just glad to get this win. I'm glad we got this out of our system.

"We played too fast. We weren't patient enough, and kept trying to get the ball up and down the floor. We had talked about how their guards love to steal outlet passes; when we did them, they looked great. But more often than not there were turnovers."

The players admitted the new jewelry weighed as heavily on their minds as it did on their fingers.

"Tonight was a different night for us because of all the emotion before the game," said Tamecka Dixon, who, along with Mwadi Mabika, had 15 points, and made two free throws with 3.3 seconds to play to provide the difference.

"We weren't able to prepare as we normally do. It was a lot of hoopla surrounding the game. It showed. We came out jittery and had turnovers we don't normally make."

Latasha Byears (five points, seven rebounds) is glad the Sparks have to play the Monarchs again Saturday in Sacramento, giving them a chance to wipe this effort from their memories.

"I don't like to make excuses, but everyone was so emotional," Byears said. "We feel the only people who can beat us is us. But it's great to play them again to try and improve on some things we did wrong."

If the Monarchs had played a bit better down the stretch they might have beaten the Sparks for the first time in the regular season since June 11, 2000 and only the third time in Los Angeles.

But they missed four shots in the final 40 seconds, including an open layup by DeMya Walker, who led Sacramento with 15 points off the bench.

The Monarchs' last gasp came after Dixon made her free throws. Ticha Penicheiro caught a long outlet pass and made a layup and was fouled by Leslie with 1.6 seconds left.

Penicheiro intentionally missed her free throw and Kara Lawson got the rebound, but missed the putback shot at the buzzer.

"We gave ourselves opportunities to win the game," Sacramento Coach Maura McHugh said. "We had open looks, and those shots didn't fall. I thought we did a good job of executing, and we got the shots we wanted, including [Walker's layup attempt]."

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