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Starzz host star-less Cleveland

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When Utah guard Korie Hlede looks at the Cleveland Rockers, the Starzz's opponent Wednesday night at 7 in the Delta Center, what she sees is "a well-rounded team that makes the most of their talents."

That pretty well explains how a team, not expected to be an Eastern front-runner, has been at or near the top of that WNBA conference for much of the season, despite losing its top scorer, Eva Nemcova, on July 5 to injury.

The Rockers, 13-10 and now second in the East since Orlando lost at Los Angeles Tuesday night and dropped to third, have put together winning streaks of five and four games this season, even though few of their players rank highly in WNBA statistics.

Hlede's may be more familiar with Cleveland than some of the Starzz, since she played most of the 1999 season in nearby Detroit and because Rocker reserve Vicki Hall is a friend of hers.

"They have a great blend," says Hlede of the Rockers, who have had six different high scorers and seven different high rebounders in games this season.

The Rockers do it with disciplined play and tight defense, much like Miami, which beat Utah last week. The Rockers are second in the league in fewest points allowed (65.0 a game) and lead the league in three categories: fewest opponent rebounds (26.7), causing opponent turnovers (18.1) and making opponents foul (23.3).

That's why Hlede calls this "the most important game of the current stretch."

Yet this current stretch could be the last.

The Cleveland game Wednesday night is the first game of the rest of the Starzz's lives, the way they look at it, with seven games left in the regular season, a 13-12 record and 2 1/2 games behind fourth-place Sacramento for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

"I say win all seven games. That's how to get in," says Hlede. "We are very alive to make the playoffs. I want to make the playoffs."

"It will show what we're made of, the last seven games," said Starzz point guard Jennifer Azzi, who hates making excuses but says it's good to have forward Adrienne Goodson back. She missed two games last week, both losses. "It really hurt having Adrienne out," Azzi said. The Starzz were looking good with a win at Sacramento July 15, but they were without Goodson the next two games and lost valuable ground.

Naomi Mulitauaopele, who injured a knee at Sacramento, was walking with a crutch at Tuesday's practice and is "50-50" to return by season's end, said coach Fred Williams. He's been trying to find a replacement, but it's tough to find someone for only a week or two when many players have picked up summer jobs or started working toward playing in Europe in the fall.

Williams was still not feeling completely well after missing Sunday's win at Orlando with what he said was a combination of flu and food poisoning, but Tuesday's practice made him feel better. "That was one of the best practices in a long time," he said.

NOTEZZ: It was a practice of discovery for reserve forward Kate Starbird. After some 90 minutes in practice, she came to the sidelines for a second time to inspect one of her shoes, which had something moving around in it. She turned it upside-down, and out fell a quarter, put there by the Foot Fairy, no doubt. Perhaps coincidentally, Starbird also said she'd found her shot, which has been missing for 25 games. She realized that she'd been turning the ball slightly with her left hand while shooting with the right, throwing it off . . . Cleveland is led in scoring by Chasity Melvin (12.0) and Merlakia Jones (9.9) . . . The Rockers have the No. 1 pick of the 2000 WNBA Draft in 6-foot-4 center Ann Wauters of Belgium, who had career highs of 14 points and eight rebounds in her last game, a 67-57 loss at Phoenix Monday.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com