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Sparks Land on Their Feet Despite Loss

Times Staff Writer

As season finales go, this one was awful for the Sparks, who were crushed by the Comets on Saturday, 77-51, at the Toyota Center in Houston. It was the fourth loss for the Sparks this season by 20 or more points, and their worst to the Comets since an 83-55 setback on Sept. 1, 1999.

But it was mostly meaningless. All the pressure was off. By virtue of Phoenix’s loss to Seattle earlier in the day, the Sparks -- who were ravaged by injuries, were a sub-.500 team when they changed coaches on Aug. 16 and appeared destined to miss the postseason for the first time in seven years -- were handed the Western Conference’s fourth and final playoff spot before tipoff.

Coach Joe Bryant, who has guided the Sparks to a 4-2 record since replacing Henry Bibby, admitted the team “had more of a sense of relief with Seattle winning early,” and he wasn’t in the mood to view Saturday’s loss as a downer.

“We really needed that game last night [in San Antonio] and we played well,” Bryant said. “Any time you play back-to-back it’s always difficult. Of course we’ve been fighting injuries all year so yes, we came out a little flat. It probably would have been better if we had not let the players watch the Seattle-Phoenix game.

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“But it’s all good. I told the ladies ‘mission accomplished.’ Ten days ago we really didn’t think we were going to be [in the playoffs].”

The only thing left to decide Saturday was who would be seeded third and fourth in the West. The Sparks had the tiebreaker over Houston, having won the first three games between the teams. A victory Saturday would have lifted them above the Comets.

But Houston (19-15) has never been swept in a regular-season series by the Sparks, and the Comets weren’t going to let it happen Saturday.

They took a 25-6 lead in the first eight minutes and led, 41-16, at halftime. Houston never let up, leading, 54-22, with about 12 minutes to play.

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Four Comets finished in double figures, led by Dominique Canty with 17. Tina Thompson added 13 while Michelle Snow and Sancho Lyttle each had 11. Lyttle also had a game-high eight rebounds. Houston shot 53.8% and outrebounded the Sparks, 27-26.

Sheryl Swoopes, the league’s leading scorer at 18.6 points per game and a most-valuable-player candidate, did not play.

The Sparks shot 34.6%, and no player finished in double figures. Lisa Leslie had nine points and Tamecka Dixon, Tamika Whitmore and Laura Macchi each scored eight.

The loss ended the Sparks’ four-game winning streak.

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So the Sparks, who end the season at 17-17, play host to Sacramento at Staples Center on Wednesday in Game 1 of the best-of-three first-round series. Game 2 will be in Sacramento on Friday and, if necessary, Game 3 would be played in Sacramento on Sunday.

“We’re happy just to be in the playoffs,” said Chamique Holdsclaw, who scored five points. “It’s a whole new season now. We’ve got to go out there and bring our best game from this point on.

“Sacramento is a good team, but they’re a team we know we can beat. Last year our roles were reversed ... we were the No. 1 seed and they were No. 4, and they bumped us. Anything’s possible in the playoffs. The level of play goes up a notch, and great teams will step up to the forefront.”

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Terry reported from Los Angeles.


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