Sparks Going Wrong Way

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a record nine consecutive victories to open the season, the Sparks are coming back to Earth. And they are not landing quietly.

The Cleveland Rockers dealt the Sparks their second consecutive defeat Friday, 74-70, before 8,672 at Gund Arena.

For the second game in a row, the Sparks (9-2) saw an opponent have a career night. Rocker guard Merlakia Jones scored 26 points, eight in a six-minute stretch when Cleveland (7-3) turned a 52-44 deficit into a 59-54 lead.

The Rockers shot 12 more free throws than the Sparks, making 23 of 29. The Sparks made 14 of 17.

Spark Coach Michael Cooper loudly pointed out the discrepancy to the officials and was irate no foul was called when Latasha Byears was knocked to the floor while making a layup. Cooper received two technical fouls from referee Ken Drayton and was ejected with 5:21 left in the game.

Drayton would not comment after the game. But a statement released by referee Derek Collins said the first technical was for "using vulgar language in response to a foul," and the second was for being out of the coaches' box.

Assistant Glenn McDonald restrained Cooper from going out farther on the floor to argue. But after the game, nothing stopped Cooper from expressing his displeasure.

"I think the officiating is terrible in this league," Cooper said. "I know I'm going to get fined for this, but that's how I feel. I think they're out of position all the time. At one end something happens, and at the other end, on the same play, nothing happens. It's incredible how there is no consistency in this game right now. There's none. Until that happens the fans are getting cheated."

Cooper admitted using profanity when getting the first technical, but felt once he got one, he should have been able to vent.

"They don't want to listen to you. They are above the game, I guess," Cooper said. "As a coach I try not to say anything, but after a while I get tired of seeing our players work their butts off, getting banged. This is as mad as I've ever been in a game. If they're not going to call it on us, don't call it on the other end."

Center Lisa Leslie led the Sparks with 21 points and received a technical from Collins in the second half after bouncing the ball hard following a noncall.

"Tonight we fought hard and had good hustle, but they just kept going to the free-throw line. And that was the difference," Leslie said.

Said Cooper: "We had this team on the ropes tonight and should have put them away. They're a good team, but we're a better one. But we didn't get it done. When we went ahead by eight, that was the time to win the game. But we got outworked and outhustled."

The Sparks travel to New York for a Sunday game and Cooper will have to wait and see if he will be suspended. One technical costs $150, and an ejection is at least $300 in lost wages. Cooper's remarks will get to the league office in New York before he does.

In other WNBA games:

Katie Smith, the league's leading scorer, had 21 of her 26 points in the second half to lead the Minnesota Lynx (3-4) to a 63-57 victory over the Miami Sol (5-4) before 6,428 at Minneapolis. . . . The Indiana Fever (3-6) held the Detroit Shock (3-5) without a basket for more than eight minutes in the second half en route to a 77-56 victory before 7,116 at Indianapolis. . . . Lauren Jackson scored 17 points and Sonja Henning added 13 as the Seattle Storm (6-5) beat the Phoenix Mercury (4-7), 58-55, before 7,123 at Phoenix. . . . Jackie Stiles had 24 points and Sophia Witherspoon scored nine points in overtime as the Portland Fire beat the Charlotte Sting, 66-62, before 8,616 at Portland, Ore.

Witherspoon, who made five free throws in overtime, finished with 12 points for the Fire (6-2).

Dawn Staley scored 14 points for the Sting (1-9).

Notes:

Brandy Reed, suspended on May 31 for conduct detrimental to the Mercury, was suspended for the rest of the season after a 45-minute meeting involving Reed, Coach Cynthia Cooper and team President Seth Sulka. . . . The Charlotte Sting acquired guard Tonya Edwards from the Mercury for a second-round pick in next year's draft.

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