The Utah Starzz have thrown healthy scares into the two best teams in the WNBA each time they've played them this year.
Wednesday night in Charlotte Coliseum, the Starzz (6-12) made good on the promise they've shown, pulling out their most impressive victory this season, one of the best in their 46-game history and maybe the biggest upset of the '98 WNBA season to date, 61-58 over Eastern Conference leader Charlotte, now 14-5.Instead of piling up a big lead and losing it, as they've done so heartbreakingly often, the Starzz fell behind by 15 to start the second half. They took their first lead of the second half with little over a minute left on an Erin Alexander 3-pointer and took the lead for good with :29 left on a Wendy Palmer rebound bucket that made it 60-58. They watched Charlotte miss twice, got a jump ball, Kim Williams made one of two free throws with :08 left, and Sting MVP Andrea Stinson missed a 3-point try with :02 left that was rebounded by the newest Starzz player, Alexander, as time ran out.
"We let them hang around and hang around and hang around instead of putting them away like we should have," said Stinson, who had 10 points and six assists. "We couldn't keep our concentration in the second half, and Utah caught us."
Charlotte had been warned. Utah was within three points with four minutes left in the first game at the Delta Center, and, two weeks ago, the Starzz led 63-62 in a 77-69 loss to the Sting when they were without starters Elena Baranova and Tammi Reiss.
Also, Utah almost pulled an upset at league-leading Houston two weeks ago, losing by four, without Baranova and Reiss, and this time the Starzz did take a game from a title contender without those two, each out with sprained ankles.
"It is great to have two starters out and come in and beat the Eastern Conference champion," said Utah coach Denise Taylor, whose club is on a first-ever two-game road-win streak and managed to beat a '97 playoff team despite making a season-high 25 turnovers.
Williams continued her strong play on this road trip that ends Sunday at Cleveland. With Reiss out, Williams has become a starter. And a jump-starter. She scored 15 points, had four steals and, at 5-foot-6, got eight rebounds. She scored 19 and 16 in her last two games.
"What got us going in the second half was our defense," said Williams. "Our guards really picked it up on that side of the ball. Defense really sparked our offense in the second half.
"This team is really making progress," Williams said.
Margo Dydek, Utah's 7-2 center, picked it up, too, with five blocked shots and many mood- altering hovers vs. the Sting players.
Sting forward Rhonda Mapp, who missed much of the season with a foot injury, blasted Utah with 11 first-half points on 5-for-9 shooting, but Dydek's presence helped hold her to seven second-half points and two critical missed shots in the final 30 seconds, including a wide-open layup on which she was perhaps looking for Dydek.
"Margo waited down by the rim in the second half instead of playing me up (high) and wouldn't let me in," said Mapp. "I didn't feel I was rushing my shots, but I took some bad ones. The layup at the end was right there, as open as I had all night. I just banked it too hard. I tried to use my quickness, but she stayed right at the rim."
"I play against her three or four years ago in France," said Dydek, the WNBA's No. 1 draft choice from Poland. "She is a really good player, but I know her. She like to play inside. Her moves are good, her spin moves, inside the basket. I know I can block this shot," Dydek said.
Dydek met instant foul trouble in the middle of the first half, getting three in less than one minute. She often finds it difficult to play with such attention from officials, but Wednesday, it seemed to steel her. "Sometimes the power of the calls against you make you more concentrate, make you more focus in the game," Dydek said in a radio interview.
"Margo was more aggressive. She stepped up and matured as a player tonight," said Taylor, whose "Mega" center had 13 points, 14 boards, five blocks and five turnovers but just four fouls.
"We hit a lot of layups in the first half but just didn't pay attention to detail in the second half," said Charlotte coach Marynell Meadors. "Dydek really impacted our finishing."
Back-to-back baskets from Dydek, an Alexander steal that led to a Williams layin - all sandwiched by two Dydek blocks - suddenly made the Starzz' upset bid believable as they went from down 56-48 to 56-54 with 4:34 left. A Dydek rebound and Alexander fast-break 3-pointer put Utah ahead 57-56. Mapp made two free throws, and Dydek stepped up with one to tie at 58, and a Palmer steal and rebound bucket gave Utah its lead.