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When Frett Clamps Down, Scorers Have Reason to Fret

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A month ago, La’Keshia Frett was at the end of the Sparks’ bench, adrift, almost a lock for the WNBA’s expansion draft next spring.

On an 11-player roster, she was No. 11. In small bits of playing time, she seemed tentative, uncertain. She passed up open shots, looking for teammates who weren’t open.

The Sparks had taken her in the fourth round of the WNBA draft. An American Basketball League veteran--with the Philadelphia Rage, after a college career at Georgia--she was the 40th player drafted. A 6-foot-3 power forward, she had a reputation as a defensive stopper who could play some offense.

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In seven early games, she played 10 or fewer minutes, or didn’t play at all.

She called her college coach, Andy Landers.

“She was upset,” he said. “She told me she just didn’t fit in there.

“I told her to relax, to just play the same kind of defense she played for me, and Orlando [Woolridge, the Sparks’ coach] would see her for what she was--a great defender.

“In 24 years at Georgia, she’s the most fundamentally sound player I’ve had. I’d like to take credit for that, but the fact is, she came out of a great high school program at Phoebus High in Hampton, Va.

“The key thing about La’Keshia is that she’s an extremely unselfish team player. She has to force herself sometimes to play a little selfishly, if that’s what’s needed to win.”

Woolridge and his assistant, Michael Cooper, saw the light. It illuminated Frett on July 7, at America West Arena in Phoenix.

The Sparks beat the Phoenix Mercury, 67-61, and Frett played a season-high 25 minutes. In reviewing the game tape, the coaches observed that Frett had guarded nearly everyone on the floor.

“We noticed she was switching off really well and that she’d guarded a small player, Kristi Harrower, as well as Lisa Harrison and Edna Campbell really well. So we moved her from [power forward to small forward], and that brought out all her defensive talent.”

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Not only is Frett now a starter, Cooper ranks her no worse than the WNBA’s second-best defender at her position, behind only Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets.

And Frett seemingly gets better with every game. Against the Washington Mystics on July 31, she held the WNBA’s No. 5 scorer, Chamique Holdsclaw, to seven points before tiring with six minutes left. Earlier, she had held Nykesha Sales of the Orlando Miracle to an 0-for-8 night.

To Cooper, Frett’s emergence as a stopper recalled for him a conversation he once had with his college coach.

“When I transferred from Pasadena City College to New Mexico, Norm Ellenberger came up to me in an early practice and said, ‘You’re going to be our stopper. I want in-your-face defensive attitude from you. If you’ll do that for me, I’m pretty sure that will get you in the NBA.’ ”

SHORT SHOTS

Woolridge is working on a one-year contract with the Sparks but says he won’t push for a new deal until after the season. . . . Briana Scurry and Michelle Akers, teammates on the U.S. women’s soccer team, have expressed interest in the WNBA, Scurry most recently. Would the Sparks consider bringing either or both to a tryout camp? “Absolutely, yes. We would do that,” team president Johnny Buss said.

Paolo Ronci, the Italian agent who brought Yugoslavs Gordana Grubin and Nina Bjedov to the Sparks, says he’s “hiding” another European gem, but it’s all top secret for now. He says she’s 17, 6-3 and that “she can play . . . in this league right now and she’s a great no-look passer.” Another agent, Bruce Levy of New York, says the best player not in the WNBA is 6-6, 19-year-old Lauren Jackson of Australia. “I would rather have her on my team than Chamique Holdsclaw,” Levy said. “She’s that good.”

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UCLA Coach Kathy Olivier is wrapping up the toughest nonconference schedule in school history for her senior-dominated team next fall. Home contests include a scrimmage Nov. 5 against the U.S. Olympic team, and games against Texas on Nov. 23, Tennessee on Nov. 28 and Old Dominion on Dec. 29. The Bruins, knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Louisiana Tech last March, get a Dec. 5 rematch at Orlando, Fla. UCLA’s returning All-American forward, Maylana Martin, had surgery May 27 to repair a bulging spinal disk.

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