WNBA Sparks defend their title
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:47 p.m.
LOS ANGELES - Clinging to a two-point lead in the final minute, Los Angeles' Latasha Byears turned the ball over on a 3-second violation.
Then New York's Tari Phillips hit a 15-footer to tie the game, putting the Sparks' chance at retaining their WNBA title in jeopardy.
But rookie Nikki Teasley, dogged by 4-of-11 shooting, hit a 3-pointer for the go-ahead basket with 2.1 seconds remaining and the Sparks beat the Liberty 69-66 Saturday to successfully defend their championship.
"They'd been backing off me all night, obviously my shot wasn't falling. I was fortunate enough to knock the shot down," said Teasley, who played at North Carolina and was drafted by Portland, then traded to the Sparks in April.
"I've never hit a game-winning shot. I've won an AAU tournament when I was 10-years-old, but nothing ever big, nothing in college," Teasley said. "I didn't get to play in the state championships in high school, but I'll you what, I'm not disappointed because this is the one to get."
Only the Sparks and the Houston Comets, who claimed the first four WNBA titles, have won the championship in the league's six-year history.
Guarded by Teresa Weatherspoon, Teasley shot from 21 feet out near the Sparks bench.
"I was kind of trying to pick my poison," said Weatherspoon, who was playing between Teasley and Sparks star Lisa Leslie. "If I could do it all over again, I would do it differently. She made a good shot."
The Sparks joined their Staples Center tenants, the Lakers, as professional basketball champions for another year. The Lakers won their third straight NBA title in June.
"Hey, if you're playing for an LA team, you're bound to get a championship," Sparks forward DeLisha Milton said. "There is something special about this city. It breeds championships."
Leslie scored 17 points, Mwadi Mabika added 12 and Teasley had 11 points and 11 assists as the Sparks rallied in the second half after squandering a 14-point lead.
"This organization had so much belief in me and so much confidence when other people didn't want to take me, everybody was questioning the trade," Teasley said. "It's a dream come true. As a player, you always dream about hitting the big shot to win the game."
Leslie was selected the most valuable player of the Finals for the second year in a row, completing her second straight sweep of the All-Star and finals MVP awards.
"This championship was so much harder to win," Leslie said. "We had to find different ways to win. We've held our own, we've been strong and it's just an amazing feeling."
Confetti doused the delirious Staples Center crowd as security staff roped off the floor and the Sparks mobbed each other at midcourt. Leslie lay on the floor clutching the game ball, her face streaked with tears. Byears held up two fingers, signifying the back-to-back titles.
The Sparks became the second team in league history to go undefeated in the playoffs. Their 6-0 record included sweeps of Seattle, Utah and New York. Houston went undefeated twice, in 1997 and 2000.
"It's all about winning," Leslie said. "That's all the Sparks want to know is championships."
A distraught Weatherspoon bent down on one knee and held her head in her hand after the Liberty lost in the Finals for the fourth time, including three to Houston. They needed a win to force a decisive third game Sunday, but instead finished 0-3 in road playoff games this season.
"I'm just tired of being a bridesmaid," she said, her red eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
Los Angeles finished 31-7, including a nine-game winning streak. The Sparks have won nine consecutive playoff games, dating to Aug. 26, 2001.
Phillips hit a jumper to tie it at 66 with 18 seconds left. It capped a 9-0 spurt by the Liberty, who held a one-point lead earlier in the half and then trailed by nine with 4:25 remaining.
Tamika Whitmore and Johnson each scored 17 points for the Liberty. New York finished 22-18 after being forced to win a third game in both the first round and Eastern Conference finals.
"I am sick of coming up short," Whitmore said. "All things happen for a reason, but I guess it is just not meant for us to win yet."
Just like they did in winning 71-63 at New York on Thursday, the Sparks went with a big lineup. They started 5-foot-11 Byears at shooting guard in place of Tamecka Dixon, who injured her back and knee when she slipped on a wet step coming off the team bus Thursday.
Despite second-half foul trouble, Byears helped control the inside most of the game. She finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and the Sparks held a 33-30 rebounding edge.
Dixon finished with six points before fouling out.
Los Angeles ran off seven straight points to start the second half and take a 38-24 lead. But the Liberty countered with their own 12-0 run, including two straight baskets off Sparks' turnovers, to trail 38-36.
New York took its only lead of the game, 42-41, on a basket by Johnson with 14:23 remaining. She got fouled by Leslie, but missed the free throw.
Teasley's two free throws put the Sparks back in front by one, then Phillips made one of two free throws on Leslie's fourth foul to tie it at 43.
The Sparks eventually led by nine before the Liberty's late 9-0 run.
"A loss like this is very devastating because you fought all the way back," New York coach Richie Adubato said. "Except for the first seven or eight minutes of the game, we really outplayed LA."
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