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Sparks Pull All Stops on Comets

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spark Coach Orlando Woolridge sometimes wears an electric purple suit to games.

When he does, the Sparks generally win, so he calls it his “lucky suit.” He wore it again Thursday night.

The players call it . . . well, Lisa Leslie put it best in the postgame glee of the Sparks’ 75-60 victory over the Houston Comets in the first game of the Western Conference finals.

“We’ve told Orlando if we win the WNBA championship, we get to burn that suit,” she said.

Smiles were everywhere in the aftermath of the Sparks’ easy win, crafted by a switching defense that was the best of the season. The Sparks held Houston stars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes to a combined 29 points, well under their average of 40 a game.

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Before 10,099 at the Great Western Forum--the Sparks’ fourth straight home crowd of 8,000-plus--the Sparks outshot (51% to 41%), outrebounded (30-21) and outhustled the two-time league champions.

They also beat the Comets for the third straight time at the Forum.

But the Sparks have never beaten the Comets in Houston, and they’ll try again Sunday afternoon. If they’re successful, the Sparks will have hoisted themselves into the WNBA championship series.

If they’re unsuccessful, a third and deciding game will be Monday night in Houston.

Houston led, 8-0, at the outset, but Woolridge said he wasn’t worried.

“I knew when it was 8-0 our defense was OK, we just missed a couple of open shots and we didn’t take good care of the ball,” he said. “We were like an old car, we needed a couple minutes to get warmed up.”

The defense was better than OK. Eight times the Sparks’ halfcourt defense left the Comets with less than 10 seconds to shoot.

Among the crowd was Laker and Spark owner Jerry Buss, who made a second-straight postgame visit to the locker room.

“I have just one thing to say,” he said to the team, according to his son, Johnny. “Go Sparks.”

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After the Sparks turned around their playoff game Tuesday against Sacramento with a rousing 50-26 second half, Johnny Buss said his father told the team:

“If the Lakers played like you did just now, they’d be winning championships.”

So, can playoff fever reverse the movement of the Spark franchise to Laker minority owner Philip Anschutz?

Johnny Buss couldn’t say.

“I don’t know, my dad’s getting pretty excited about this team right now,” he said.

“We’re still going to talk to the Staples people. The thing is, these playoff crowds are really helping our bottom line. In the playoffs, we could make another $250,000.”

And now, on to Compaq Center, where a capacity crowd of 16,285 is assured for Sunday afternoon and again Monday, if needed.

Can it be done? Can Woolridge’s suit be torched?

“We want that championship, and we want it Sunday,” guard Allison Feaster said. “We will not be denied--I’m serious.”

Said Leslie, who had a game-high 23 points: “The odds aren’t good [Houston is 32-2 at home the last two seasons], but if we do what we did tonight--keep our defense intact and play tough defense and concentrate on our choice of shots, we can do it.”

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The Sparks never trailed after a Leslie three-pointer gave them a 29-27 lead late in the first half.

In fact, the Sparks had a 41-31 lead shortly after the break. When Gordana Grubin made a 12-foot baseline jumper to make it 50-33, the Sparks were accorded one of their loudest ovations of the year, forcing Houston to call time.

Around the WNBA

The league announced Thursday that Sacramento’s Yolanda Griffith had been named winner of the “Newcomer of the Year” and “Defensive Player of the Year” awards.

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