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Starzz pick up big road victory

Utah a game away from fourth place and a playoff spot

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SACRAMENTO — All season, the Utah Starzz have been saying they're a playoff-caliber team. They just rarely looked like it.

But now, the Starzz are coming off maybe their biggest victory of the season and their biggest road win in franchise history.

They go happily into the WNBA All-Star Break with a three-game win streak, 12-10 record and owning the tiebreakers against both third-place Phoenix, which Utah beat on Friday, and fourth-place Sacramento, who was Utah's 75-69 victim Saturday night in ARCO Arena.

Utah is now just one game out of fourth place and the final playoff position in the Western Conference, and should it do well enough to either tie with Phoenix, 13-7, or Sacramento, now 13-9, it has the tiebreakers toward a playoff spot against them because it has now won two of the three games against them this season.

"It is a big step to where we want to go," said coach Fred Williams, referring to the playoffs, now about four weeks away.

"Playing two (1999) playoff teams back-to-back and winning both, one at home and one on the road, says something about the credibility of our young ladies and the organization and which direction we want to go," Fred Williams said by phone Saturday night.

"We definitely have a long way to go and can't get too high or too low," said point guard Jennifer Azzi, "but this team can go anywhere. It just depends on how willing we are to put it together and sacrifice at the end of the season."

Utah is the only WNBA charter-member team to have never reached the playoffs.

Utah is at Phoenix on Wednesday, when play resumes following Monday's All-Star Game, featuring the Starzz's Natalie Williams, in Phoenix.

Williams and her All-Star/Olympic teammate Yolanda Griffith of Sacramento staged a monumental battle Saturday night, canceling each other out with monster numbers. Each scored 29 points, and Griffith had 17 rebounds with WNBA rebounding leader Williams getting 13 for Utah. Griffith committed five turnovers to Williams' one, but she shot 13-for-19 from the field while Williams was 11-for-13 at the free-throw line.

The total was one off Williams' season high. It was a WNBA-career high for Griffith.

Utah, ironically, won the game at the free-throw line, where it usually makes far fewer appearances than its opponent. After shooting just six free throws in the first half to 13 (eight makes) by the Monarchs, Fred Williams said Utah went to a 2-3 zone to stop Sacramento's penetration.

The Monarchs resorted to outside shooting that simply didn't work. They were 1-for-18 on 3-point shots, 1-for-13 in the second half. If Griffith didn't get put-backs, the Monarchs were in trouble.

Utah finished making 24-of-29 free throws to 10-for-17 for Sacramento, which couldn't get fouled when it couldn't drive the second half. Utah, meanwhile, went to the hole and drew fouls.

"We attacked the basket," Fred Williams said. "When you're aggressive, you get the calls."

The other place where Utah did well was turnovers, a season-low 11 after only 13 on Friday against Phoenix, now that point guard Azzi is settling into her role after missing the first 17 games of the season with a broken hand.

Sacramento leads the WNBA in steals at 10-plus per game and had nine, but Utah didn't make unforced errors and played with poise down the stretch again.

Azzi, for the second night in a row, matched her WNBA-career high of eight assists, and she added 15 points on 6-for-6 at the line.

Also, center Margo Dydek had 12 points and 10 rebounds in only 25 minutes of play. She also had two blocks.

In the final 9 minutes and 14 seconds, Fred Williams went with Amy Herrig at center to help distribute the ball and defend Sacramento's mobile posts. With the game's first basket, Dydek became the club's all-time career scoring leader. She now has 993 points.

Azzi scored the first 3-pointer of her season at 6:07 of the first half.

Utah lost backup center Naomi Mulitauaopele, who bruised her left shin with 7:40 left in the first half. The problem is an aggravation of her Osgood-Schlatter's disease, which came from growing too quickly as a youngster. Trainer Leanne Stockton said Mulitauaopele would see team orthopedist Dr. Lyle Mason on Monday and is day-to-day with the injury.