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Sparks Dig Out to Even Series With Seattle, 1-1

Times Staff Writer

The Sparks were trailing by 15 points in the second quarter after watching Seattle repeatedly make open shots. With every other WNBA first-round series ending in a sweep, this one seemed ready to follow suit.

But the Sparks, seeded first in the Western Conference, decided they weren’t going out like that.

They rallied Sunday to beat the Storm, 78-70, at Staples Center to force a third and deciding game on Tuesday.

The Sparks’ chances were alive thanks to the efforts of Mwadi Mabika and Lisa Leslie, who each had 17 points. Tamara Moore -- back in the starting lineup after not playing Friday in Seattle when Chamique Holdsclaw replaced her -- had 10 points as did Christi Thomas.

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“I told them [at halftime] we weren’t ready to go to the beach yet,” Sparks Coach Joe Bryant said. “We’d worked too hard during the course of the season to be eliminated after two games.”

The series also turned into a battle of attrition. Holdsclaw, the Sparks’ second-leading scorer, played two minutes and took one shot before her sore left foot became too painful to continue. Holdsclaw left the arena with her foot in a protective boot. Her availability is unknown.

Seattle might have lost All-Star guard Sue Bird, who was hit in the nose by an inadvertent elbow late in the fourth quarter and left the court with her bloody face in a towel. Bird has broken her nose in games each of the last two seasons. She was taken to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, where she had a CT scan. The Storm said she would see an ear, nose and throat specialist today. Seattle Coach Anne Donovan said Bird’s nose was probably broken, and her playing status is uncertain. Bird travels with a customized, clear face mask.

In the game, the Storm opened well, making six of 10 shots while the Sparks connected on three of 11. Seattle led, 29-19, at the end of the first quarter and built a 39-24 edge with 4:51 left in the second quarter.

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Although the lights weren’t out in Staples Center, they were definitely flickering. But the Sparks switched from a man-to-man defense that didn’t work to a zone that did.

And Mabika went to work.

She scored seven of the team’s final nine points in the second quarter as the Sparks closed the gap to 40-33 at halftime. And she scored six more points in a 12-2 run to open the third quarter that gave the Sparks a 45-42 lead with 6:44 left.

“Both those runs were equally important,” said Leslie, who added that, before the first run, the team aimed to cut the deficit in half. Added Leslie: “The next time we huddled I said, ‘This will be the difference of playing 20 minutes and going home, or playing another game.’ ”

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Spurred by Mabika’s outburst and a defense that slowed Seattle to a crawl, the Sparks would never trail after leading 45-42. The best the Storm could do was a 59-59 tie with 8:47 left.

“That was vintage Mabika,” Donovan said. “When she came out and caught fire in the third quarter, that made all the difference in the game.”

Mabika remembered being eliminated in the playoffs.

“I saw that we were in trouble,” Mabika said. “I was thinking of the past, when we got knocked out in the first round. I thought, ‘If we’re going to lose, we might as well lose with a fight.’

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“I’m a leader, and it’s going to start with me.”

Seattle’s Betty Lennox led all scorers with 19. Lauren Jackson had 13 for the Storm.


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