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Sparks Win Opener, With Reservations

Times Staff Writer

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Lisa Leslie was putting some final support tape on her knees Saturday when she was asked how the 2003 Sparks might be different from the last two teams that won league championships.

“We feel like we have so many weapons out there,” Leslie said. “That’s why I can’t wait for the season to finally start. We feel really confident about where we are as a team. And today is going to be a good challenge to see where we are.”

It was the Sparks’ WNBA season opener against the Connecticut Sun, an old team (formerly the Orlando Miracle) in a new home. And in the first half the Sparks looked overpowering.

The Sun slowed the Sparks considerably in the second half. But Connecticut never caught the Sparks, who held on for an 82-73 victory before an announced sellout crowd of 9,341 at Mohegan Sun Arena, a casino owned by the Mohegan Indian tribe, which also owns the team.

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Mwadi Mabika scored 11 of her game-high 19 points in the second half to lead the Sparks. Leslie had 18 points and 10 rebounds, DeLisha Milton had 17 points and Tamecka Dixon had 16. Leslie blocked four shots.

Katie Douglas, Shannon Johnson and Nykesha Sales all had 16 for Connecticut.

“Credit Connecticut with a big effort,” Spark Coach Michael Cooper said. “We knew this would be a hard win and we’re glad to get this one. Obviously we can play a lot better.”

In the past, Cooper might have been irked by the Sparks’ shooting only 21.9% (seven for 32) in the second half after burning the Suns at a 52.5% rate (21 for 40) in the first half. He probably wouldn’t have been pleased, either, by his team’s missing its first seven shots of the second half, or making only one field goal in the final 6:03 of the game. And he would have vented.

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But Cooper understands his veteran team won’t panic in the face of adversity. So what if the Sun, which trailed by as many as 17 points, got as close as 76-71 with 2:18 to play? Or that the Sparks, who led, 55-41, at the half, never adjusted to the 2-3 zone thrown up by the Sun in the final 20 minutes?

If you can’t make field goals, then make free throws. Los Angeles made 24 of 28, including seven of eight in the final minute. Even though they were outrebounded, 46-43, the Sparks held the Sun to 34.5% shooting (29 for 84).

“Our good play in the first half got us a lead we could hold,” Cooper said. “They made some adjustments. But overall I liked our intensity.... We’re not going to have any easy games this year because everyone has gotten better. But championship teams put a run on you here and there. And championship teams win on the road.”

Leslie said afterward that the Sparks did not practice much against zone defenses during training camp. “But we hope that teams who watched today think they can just play us in a zone. We just haven’t gotten to that part of our game yet.”

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Said Dixon: “We were just out there trying to work through things. At times [the zone] stifled us. But we’ll get a couple of practices against zones in the next couple of days. We’ll be able to counter it next time.”

All new franchises have their firsts. And the Sun -- purchased and relocated by the Mohegan tribe, the first independent owner in the WNBA’s seven-year history -- was no exception.

Shannon Johnson made the first basket in Connecticut franchise history, a 12-foot jumper at the 18:34 mark. Unfortunately for the Sun, the Sparks had already scored the game’s first seven points. So Connecticut is still looking for its first lead.

The Sparks’ biggest lead was 53-36, and the Sun struggled to keep up because it could not stop Leslie or Milton early.

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Although Connecticut’s second-half rallies fell short, Mike Thibault -- in his first game as a coach -- saw things to build on as well as things to correct.

“There was a lot of everything today,” he said. “A lot of good, a lot of junk. A lot of excitement, a lot of missed opportunities. If anything, this game was a missed opportunity, because we gave them some gifts and the gifts they gave us we didn’t take advantage of.”


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