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Cooper Says Sparks Want to Go 32-0

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 9-0 start leading to a 28-4 regular-season record. A league-record 18-game winning streak. A 6-1 playoff run and the WNBA championship.

All that was last season.

As the defending champion Sparks arrived Monday at Loyola Marymount to open their 2002 training camp, Coach Michael Cooper had their next goal in place: 32-0.

“I’m putting the onus on the ladies,” Cooper said. “If we take this one game at a time, we could be the UConn of professional basketball and go undefeated this year.

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“It’s going to be tough because the league is better, but it’s not out of the realm. Our ultimate goal is to win the championship, but we would like to distinguish ourselves by going undefeated.”

That sound you hear is opposing coaches hurrying to post Cooper’s comments on every bulletin board in the WNBA.

“I know of one board it will be on, and that’s [Houston’s],” said Cooper, referring to the four-time league champion Comets.

Let the mind games begin.

Even though there may be, at best, two available spots on the Sparks’ 11-woman roster, Cooper and General Manager Penny Toler have tried to assemble a highly competitive camp roster.

Along with the returning players are seven rookies, among them the fifth overall pick of the 2002 draft, Nikki Teasley, who was obtained in the trade with Portland for Ukari Figgs, and 2001 Notre Dame forward Kelley Siemon, who played last year with Athletes in Action. Also expected to provide a lift is guard Sophia Witherspoon, a five-year veteran who came from Portland in the Figgs-Teasley trade.

“This camp is loaded at every position,” said guard Nicky McCrimmon.

But does that translate into a dominant team?

Cooper and Toler are tinkering with the chemistry by replacing Figgs with Teasley, who was brilliant at North Carolina but is unproven in the WNBA.

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Shooting guard Tamecka Dixon had an all-star year, despite nagging foot injuries, and said she still is only 85% recovered.

The schedule has the Sparks playing games on consecutive nights six times, and nine of those 12 games are on the road.

No Spark player was eager to back Cooper’s prediction. But all believe they can be a better team.

“We can get a lot better,” Dixon said. “But this year is going to be a mental test. I feel we practice harder than anyone in the league, so physically we’ll be OK. But mentally, we have to be very tough, because we know every other team got better.”

If there’s anything Cooper has taken from the pro coaches he played or worked for--among them former Laker bosses Pat Riley and Del Harris--it is that teams must evolve to avoid complacency.

“As I told the players, we have to change the look of our team, but it’s a team we’re very comfortable with,” Cooper said. “Our thinking is, you have to back up starters with starters. And we have a good core group that we can pick from.”

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Not every player reported Monday. Starting forward DeLisha Milton is playing professionally in Parma, Italy, and may not arrive until May 9, depending on how her team does in league playoffs. Reserve forward Vedrana Grgin-Fonseca is playing in Spain and is not expected until May 15.

Reserve forward Rhonda Mapp is considering whether to play this season, and Toler said Mapp will be put on the suspended list if she does not report today.

Among the three free agents invited to camp is 6-foot-5 center Erika de Souza, who plays for Brazil’s national team. She was scheduled to arrive today.

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