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Sparks Just Stroll Across Tightrope

Again on the brink of playoff elimination, they race past Monarchs, 79-54, to even the best-of-three Western Conference finals series.

September 08, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Michael Cooper, his team facing elimination for the third time in this year's WNBA playoffs, quietly fretted before Sunday's game about his Sparks again having to advance the hard way.

"We messed around with this enough the last series against Minnesota," said Cooper, whose team had to win back-to-back games to get past the Lynx in the first round. "You'd think we would have known. But if this is the kind of edge we need [to play], then this is it."

Sunday, the Sparks' edge was as sharp as a Samurai sword.

They overwhelmed the Sacramento Monarchs, 79-54, in Game 2 of the best-of-three Western Conference finals before 7,982 at Staples Center.

"I thought our defense came out and initiated what we wanted to do," Cooper said. "I think we took them out of their comfort zone. They won the first game, which means that we had to make adjustments for [Sunday's] game, and now they have to make adjustments for [today's] game."

All it did was even the series at 1-1. The winner of tonight's game will advance to the WNBA championship series against the Detroit Shock.

But the Monarchs may have lost more than a game. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who took an accidental knee in the chest from Lisa Leslie during Sacramento's victory Friday, had the same thing happen in the first half Sunday. Penicheiro, who later said she had difficulty breathing, did not return to the game in the second half. After the game, Penicheiro was taken to Centinela Hospital for X-rays, which were negative. She was diagnosed with bruised ribs. She will be examined by team physician John Rafkind today. Her availability will be a game-time decision.

Said the Sparks' DeLisha Milton: "I'm not gonna make any predictions, but I know we better play like this [tonight]. Or we're gonna be home cryin', saying 'woulda, coulda, shoulda.' But today we came out and maintained a certain level of intensity from the jump ball."

The Sparks never gave Sacramento a look at the game, leading by as many as 28 points. Mwadi Mabika led the charge with 24 points. Leslie had 16 -- her first playoff game under 20, but her points weren't needed -- and Tamecka Dixon had 14.

On defense, the Sparks limited the visitors to 30% shooting (18 of 60) and made 48.4% of their own shots. They outrebounded Sacramento, 37-31, and forced 17 Monarch turnovers.

"I thought our defense was the biggest difference," Leslie said. "It led to a lot of fastbreak opportunities. And Nikki Teasley did a great job of getting us into the offenses we needed to run. Mwadi brought us energy. And we did a good job crashing the boards."

Teasley, who drew her fifth foul with 15:07 left in the game, had seven points and 10 assists.

There was also help from the bench, most notably from Lynn Pride, who joined the team in place of the suspended Rhonda Mapp. Pride scored three points, but her most important contributions during her 13 minutes were five rebounds (three on offense), two steals and an energy that spread through the Sparks.

"I feel that's my role, to come in and do whatever it takes," Pride said. "Mainly be a defensive presence. And I knew we had to rebound, because they controlled the boards the last time we played."

Sacramento Coach John Whisenant expected the Sparks to get the same kind of emotional jolt from their home crowd that the Monarchs got in Arco Arena on Friday. But if things started badly for the Monarchs early, he did not want his team to turn off mentally and start thinking about Game 3.

"We need to play from the beginning. [The Sparks] are too good a team to dig a hole against," Whisenant said before the game. "I don't want us to use as a crutch the fact we have another game."

His fears were founded. Yolanda Griffith, with two early fouls, was limited to 12 points -- 10 of them on free throws -- and three rebounds. Tangela Smith was the only other Monarch in double figures with 15 points.

"Defensively, we put up a bad one today. We couldn't pressure the ball," Whisenant said. "Teasley found a lot of open players today, and when you get behind, when you're not functioning well, it's very hard to keep focused on offense and not try to score four points every possession."

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