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Starzz still shine on Gaither

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There was a woman with a new hairdo among the 7,600 fans who cheered for Jennifer Azzi as she ran onto center court as part of the Starzz starting lineup Friday night.

Her happiness, however, was tinged with heartache as Azzi's return meant she lost her job.

In all the excitement over the Olympian's return, Katryna Gaither's fate was reduced to a footnote. She was the player the team released in order to activate Azzi.

Most Starzz fans probably weren't too familiar with the forward anyway.

She only averaged six minutes, 1.6 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. She didn't play in eight of the team's 17 games, and less than six minutes in six of those nine games.

Still, her departure wasn't easy for her coach and teammates, who say they are as close as a family.

"It's not a fun thing to do," head coach Fred Williams said of releasing Gaither. "We wish her well. She's going to find a career in this league.

Everything about her in relation to our team has been great. She can always be on call for us."

Williams has been through the process before, but this year he's been the one responsible for making the decision. He said there isn't an easy way to let a player know they're being released.

"You just have to be straight up and honest," he said. "There's no formula, no secret. I care for every player on this team, every player that's left this team . . . Tree (a nickname for Katryna) has really been good as far as chemistry on this team. But she understands it's the nature of the business. . . It's the thing you hate to do."

Gaither said she isn't giving up on professional basketball and is trying to be optimistic about her future in the WNBA.

"I'm trying to stay positive, and hopefully I'll be picked up by another team," she said. "If not, I'll go back home and keep working on my game for next year."

Gaither boarded a flight to New York Saturday morning as her former teammates headed to Los Angeles. They will try to win against a Sparks team that is on an 11-game winning streak, a record second only to Houston's 15-game streak set last year. Los Angeles is 15-2 overall.

Utah, now 9-9, lost to a Detroit team, 73-69, that most everyone expected them to easily defeat Friday.

"I can't stand to lose so that was the hard part," Azzi said after the game. "It felt really good to be out on the court. It is really hard to step on to this team in the middle of the season. I am really surprised that we lost tonight."

Many players felt the week they had of no games hurt them. They go to Los Angeles hoping to avenge an earlier loss to the Sparks in the Great Western Forum. Utah lost its season opener to L.A., 69-62.

The Sparks are the only WNBA team undefeated on their home court. The L.A. fans will get to see the league's two top rebounders in Natalie Williams and Lisa Leslie, respectively. Williams is averaging 11.9 per game while Leslie is averaging 9.6.

The Starzz shot an abysmal 39 percent against Detroit, and they face an L.A. team that has forced opponents to shoot 38 percent or worse this year. In addition to Leslie, who was voted as the starting center for the West's WNBA All-Star team by fans, Los Angeles will have guard Tamecka Dixon and forward Mwadi Mabika to deal with.

Utah practiced at the Forum Saturday afternoon and all players for both teams are healthy.

And there will be one woman cheering for Utah from the east coast in Gaither.

"They'll be so much (I'll miss in Utah), the team, the weather," she said.