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Saturday, August 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Storm

L.A. ends Seattle's season with series victory

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Sparks disposed of the pesky Seattle Storm and advanced to the Western Conference finals for the fourth consecutive year.

Lisa Leslie scored 23 points as the Sparks won 69-59 Saturday to sweep the first-round playoff series in two games.

"We’ve found our poise and we’re understanding what playoff basketball is about because of our experience from last season," Leslie said. "It was great facing a team that we had lost to because we knew we had to come out here and get after it for 40 minutes."

The defending WNBA champions will play either Houston or Utah in the conference finals beginning Thursday night. Utah leads that best-of-three series 1-0.

"If we face Houston, it’ll be a very hungry series for us because we have lost to them twice," Leslie said. "It would be fitting for us to play them. There’s been so much talk, so much hype. I don’t see it happening any other way."

The Sparks had to come from behind after trailing for the first 11 minutes. Even then, it wasn’t until the second half that Los Angeles put together its first dominant run of the game.

"Our defense was pretty much the key," Leslie said. "They jumped out on us early, they came with a lot of aggression, a lot more than the last game, but I thought we held our composure very well."

Seattle, which won the season series with the Sparks 2-1, made a late run to get within two points with 2:32 remaining. The Sparks countered with seven straight points to put the game away in front of 8,187 fans.

"They responded as the world champion would," Seattle coach Lin Dunn said. "I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re the best team in the world. I don’t see anybody being able to beat them."

The Sparks are 7-0 in the first round since first making the playoffs in 1999. They have swept Sacramento, Phoenix, Houston and now Seattle in that span.

Sue Bird and Kamila Vodichkova led the Storm with 17 points each. Center Lauren Jackson had just four points, allowing the Sparks a 42-22 advantage in the paint. Seattle shot just 34.5 percent from the floor.

"It was a physical game. It was hard," Jackson said. "They played really, really well, and they’ll probably go on and win another championship."

Jackson was just 1-of-9 from the field in 34 minutes against Leslie’s defense.

"They just stopped me from scoring," Jackson said. "I couldn’t hit the side of a brick wall either. I missed a lot of very easy shots that I would make normally. Everybody has a four-point game sometime."

Jackson led the Storm with 19 points, and Bird had 11 points in Seattle’s 78-61 home loss Thursday night in Game 1.

"We didn’t play our best, but at the same time, we did a lot better than the other night," Bird said.

The Storm trailed 33-29 early in the second half before the Sparks outscored them 13-2 for their largest lead, 46-31, with 12:43 remaining. During that stretch Los Angeles forward Mwadi Mabika, who hit a 3-pointer in the run, went down with a lightly sprained left ankle, but she returned with 6:48 to play.

Leslie had one basket in the spurt, while getting plenty of help. Rookie Nikki Teasley had four consecutive points and Sophia Witherspoon and Tamecka Dixon also scored. Dixon finished with 15 points.

"They have so many weapons," Dunn said. "Mabika, Dixon, Leslie, right off the bat you think of those three. Then you’ve got to deal with Teasley and her size at the point position. They’re big, they’re quick, they’re strong, they’re experienced."

Trailing by 14 points, the Storm used a 14-2 run, including 3-pointers by Felicia Ragland, Vodichkova and Bird to trail 56-54 with 3:03 left. After the Sparks scored, Jackson hit two free throws to keep the Storm within two.

But Los Angeles reeled off seven points in a row to lead 65-56 with 1:01 left. The Sparks hit all seven of their final free throws.

"We took the inside attack away and made them be more of a perimeter shooting team," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said.

The Storm took a 14-9 lead to start the game, when the Sparks missed their first six shots. Leslie’s inside basket gave Los Angeles its first lead, 17-15, with 10:20 remaining. The Sparks went on to outscore Seattle 18-10 to end the half ahead 33-25.

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