- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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TULSA, Okla. -- This was supposed to be the game where Tulsa welcomed back the 6-foot-8 center who hasn't been here this season. Instead, the star of the night was the 5-6 guard who has spent the past three years helping the Shock get off the ground in Oklahoma.
The Liz Cambage "She's back!" promotion went out the window earlier this week when the Aussie player decided she just couldn't see spending the next month with the Shock before heading to her higher-paying gig in China over the winter months.
Considering the way the Shock played Thursday in a 99-85 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks, maybe it was just as well that Tulsa's chemistry doesn't have to adjust to adding in another player.
Because right now, Tulsa -- which had the worst record in the WNBA the past two seasons -- is definitely not in the league's cellar. In fact, for just the third time since the franchise moved from Detroit to Tulsa for the 2010 season, the Shock have won back-to-back games. They won at Atlanta on Tuesday and now have three wins in their past four games.
Latta said she wasn't dwelling on Cambage's absence Thursday.
"I just felt like the whole team thought, 'OK, Liz isn't coming back, we wish her the best,'" said Latta, who had one of the top games of her WNBA career with 21 points and 14 assists. "But we've got to continue with the players that we have here and keep building our chemistry."
Thursday's 99 points were the most the Shock have scored since the team's relocation to Tulsa. More impressive, Tulsa did it against a Sparks team that is trying to catch Minnesota for the Western Conference lead and came into Thursday on a nine-game winning streak.
The Sparks (19-7) didn't look like themselves defensively, but coach Carol Ross gave Tulsa a lot of credit for that. It's the second time this season that the Shock have defeated L.A. here in Tulsa; they previously did it June 26.
"They remind me of the last college team I coached," said Ross of her Mississippi squad that made the Elite Eight back in 2007. "That speed, that aggression, and the tenacity on the defensive end. I admire how hard they play.
"When you play like that on the defensive end, that aggression flows right into their offense. It puts them in advantage situations a lot. And they've got really confident shooters and drivers. Their guard play is just tremendous."
The Shock didn't even have one of their guards, Temeka Johnson, who is out with an ankle injury. But Latta valiantly carried a heavy load. She had five of the Shock's season-high 14 3-pointers; the Shock shot a sizzling 58.3 percent from behind the arc.
"I think Latta has such positive energy, she's a good teammate and player to coach," said Ross, who worked with Latta when both of them were with the Atlanta Dream. "She plays with a lot of joy and swagger. She's a small player with a big game. I think it's infectious. She's resilient, and she's got offensive gifts. That's why she's not only stuck around in this league, but found a place where she can be very successful."
Seven Shock players scored in double figures. And this was against a very good L.A. team -- one that is capable of winning the West and even the league championship if everyone is on their game. So what gives with the Sparks losing twice to Tulsa?
"John Wooden always said, 'Speed kills,' and I agree," Ross said. "Their speed is tough for a lot of teams to handle, but it's certainly been a real challenge for us. They're small and fast, and we're tall. It's not a great matchup for us.
"Having said that, however, the team that plays the hardest should win. I always hope that's going to be my team. But Tulsa plays harder than a lot of teams. They've had their hearts broken many times, and now they're reaping the benefits of getting through that."
Cambage's decision not to rejoin the Shock disappointed Tulsa fans, but the players themselves seemed unfazed. While ready to welcome back Cambage, who played her WNBA rookie season here last year, they've already spent most of the summer without her. So they certainly were not looking to be rescued.
"We know we have to play with the hand we are dealt, and that's motivation for us," said Shock rookie forward Glory Johnson, who had 16 points and six rebounds and held her own against fellow Tennessee alum Candace Parker of L.A. "I try to play as hard as I can against every player, but I knew I had to step up as much as I can against a great player like Candace."
Now 6-19, the Shock have matched their high in victories since coming to Oklahoma; they also had six wins in 2010. Latta says they have no intention of keeping that number at six.
"I told my teammates, 'We have to finish strong, there's more games out there that we can win,'" Latta said. "It's all about character, and we're building that. There's no need to give up on a season. I won't let that happen."
That's an admirable attitude. Tulsa, with its struggles since coming to Oklahoma, simply has to focus on getting every victory it can.
Still, it's a bit of an odd situation, isn't it? Despite being the worst team, record-wise, the past two seasons, the Shock didn't earn the subsequent No. 1 draft pick either time. The lottery balls didn't bounce their way.
This year, considering how Tulsa is playing compared to apparently dead-in-the-water Washington (5-20) and Phoenix (4-19), the Shock very well might not finish in the league's basement and end up with the most lottery balls.
If there's any karma, though, maybe Tulsa will get the No. 1 pick even if the lottery percentage aren't in their favor. Because with the competitive spirit they are showing, it makes you think they deserve such a break.
20dBonnie D. Ford