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Sparks overpower ailing Comets to win series

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Los Angeles Sparks took their biggest
step yet toward a WNBA championship by sweeping Houston, the
league's best team four years in a row, out of the playoffs.

Lisa Leslie had 28 points and 18 rebounds and the Sparks knocked
the Comets out of the postseason for the first time with a 70-58
victory Monday night.

"We went to Houston and we faced the dragon with a win down
there in the den, and we came back and we really didn't want it to
be a Game 3, so we fought really hard," Leslie said.

The Sparks swept the best-of-three first-round series and
advanced to the Western Conference finals against Sacramento
beginning Friday.

"They were better this season," Houston's Tammy Jackson said.
"When they get to four championships, they can start talking."

The Sparks won their 17th consecutive game in Staples Center,
going 16-0 and becoming the first team in league history to win
every home game.

"Staples Center is the bomb," Leslie said. "I see why NBA
guys had a hard time. We shoot well here, the crowd generates a lot
of energy for us."

Houston's defeat means the league will have a new champion for the
first time in its five-year history. The Comets won the first four
WNBA championships, including sweeping Los Angeles in the
conference finals a year ago Monday.

"I am sure everyone in the world is happy that we're getting a
new champion," Comets coach Van Chancellor said.

The Comets suffered a huge blow when they lost Tina Thompson
with 11:03 remaining after she went down under Houston's basket,
yelling in pain and grabbing her left leg.

Thompson was carried to the locker room with the Comets trailing
48-45. She tore her left calf muscle and did not return. She
finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three turnovers.

"That's a pretty serious injury," Leslie said. "It's tough,
but they fought hard and they fought to the end. They're a great
team."

Thompson's teammates briefly responded, and after trailing the
entire second half, took a 51-50 lead on two free throws by Tiffani
Johnson. Janeth Arcain, who replaced Thompson, hit a driving layup
for a 54-52 lead with 5:58 remaining. Arcain led the Comets with 18
points.

Arcain already was hobbled by right knee tendinitis, which
caused her to ask Chancellor for a rest.

"Coach told me to go (back in). I couldn't, but I did," Arcain
said. "I stood to fight. Tina and I played together all season. We
scored for the team, but we didn't get help for the playoffs."

The Sparks, who blew an 11-point lead early in the half,
regrouped and ran off 14 consecutive points to take a 66-54 lead with
2:35 remaining. That put the game away, and sent the fans into a
frenzy.

Ahead 56-54, the Sparks blocked Johnson's shot, then Tamecka
Dixon and Ukari Figgs scored on consecutive fastbreak layups. Figgs
was fouled and made the free throw.

"That was important to get us back in our running game," said
Leslie, who started out shakily with three turnovers in the game's
first two minutes.

Dixon added 12 points and Figgs had 11. The Sparks dominated the
boards 41-31, a major difference from Game 1 Saturday, which they
won 64-59 at Houston.

Thompson and Arcain carried the Comets this season when Sheryl
Swoopes was out because of knee surgery and Cynthia Cooper retired.
But when they didn't score, the Comets had no reliable backup
offensive threats.

"We played our ever-loving heart out," Chancellor said. "We
played championship defense. We just reached a point where we
couldn't score."

In fact, no other Houston players had more than two points in
the first half, when Arcain and Thompson combined for 22 of the 28
points.

"The difference is we didn't have Swoopes and Cooper, and they
picked it up a level," Chancellor said. "They're better and Lisa
Leslie is on a mission."

The Comets came out and scored the game's first six points and
scrambled after every loose ball. The game turned into a two-point
contest for a six-minute stretch of the half before Dixon and Figgs
helped the Sparks to a 32-24 halftime lead.

A crowd of 8,730, including Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who was
wearing Leslie's jersey, chanted "MVP, MVP" for Leslie in the
closing minutes. Although the Sparks had their smallest crowd in
four home games, the fans were at their loudest, slapping blowup
purple bangers and doing the wave.