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Mercury falls in Los Angeles

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Los Angeles Sparks finished off Phoenix, and they know who they want next.

"We consider Houston the team to beat, and we're looking forward to that challenge again," Lisa Leslie said after scoring 29 points as the Sparks beat the Mercury 101-76 Sunday to sweep their best-of-three WNBA first-round playoff series.

The Comets, who have won all three league titles, just need a victory at home over Sacramento on Monday night to reach the Western Conference finals against Los Angeles.

"They're a great team and they've made their mark in history," Leslie said. "We feel that if we go out there and work hard, we'll give ourselves a good opportunity to win."

Phoenix kept it close until Los Angeles' 14-2 run in the second half extended the Sparks' lead to 20 points.

"For the first half and the first seven minutes, we were right there with them," Phoenix coach Cheryl Miller said. "They just kept putting in more athletes and we just simply ran out of gas."

Leslie was 12-for-17 from the field and 5-for-7 from the line. Leslie and Mwadi Mabika each had eight rebounds, leading the Sparks to a 48-28 advantage on the boards.

Mabika also scored 15 points, Tamecka Dixon added 14 points and seven assists, and DeLisha Milton had 11 points.

Jennifer Gillom and Lisa Harrison each scored 16 points for Phoenix. Tonya Edwards added 12 points and Brandy Reed had 11 for the Mercury, who dropped the opener 86-71 at home.

The Sparks led 42-36 at halftime, and the Mercury could get no closer than six points in the second half. A 3-pointer by Edwards trimmed Los Angeles' lead to 65-57 with 11:45 left, but the Sparks responded with the 14-2 run to make it 79-59.

"We came out and established everything that we wanted to," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said.

The Sparks went on a 10-0 run to take a 27-14 lead. The Mercury outscored Los Angeles 22-15 during the remainder of the first half to draw within six points.

Reserve Clarisse Machanguana had 10 points for the Sparks, who set a WNBA playoff record for points in a game.

The Sparks will play at either Houston or Sacramento on Thursday night. Houston defeated Los Angeles 2-1 in last year's conference finals, a series in which the home team won every game. Los Angeles will have the home-court advantage this season regardless of the opponent.

The Sparks were 3-0 against Houston in the regular season, including their first victory at Compaq Center following eight losses.

Gillom said she thought Los Angeles "right now is a better team."

"They are playing good team basketball," Gillom said. "Their confidence is there."

ROCKERS 63, MIRACLE 54: At Cleveland, Helen Darling helped the Cleveland Rockers build a big lead, and Merlakia Jones made sure the Orlando Miracle never caught up.

Both guards scored 15 points as Cleveland tied the best-of-three WNBA Eastern Conference series with a 63-54 victory in Game 2 Sunday.

"I worked a lot with our assistant coach, Lisa Boyer, on shooting after Game 1," Darling said. "She told me that I had helped my college team (Penn State) go to the Final Four and now I can help take this team to a championship."

Darling, a rookie, hit two 3-pointers and scored 10 points in the first half to help the Rockers roll to a lead that reached 25 points.

"Helen is going to work with coach Boyer a lot more, too," Cleveland coach Dan Hughes said.