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Starzz facing doom

Loss at Cleveland just about wrecks any playoff hopes

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Rockers 74, Starzz 71

CLEVELAND — With three games left in the regular season, the Utah Starzz, sunk by a 3-pointer at Cleveland Thursday night, 74-71, are three games behind both Sacramento and Phoenix in the run for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference of the WNBA.

The only reason that the 16-13 Starzz are still alive is that they own the playoff tiebreaker over both Sacramento (19-10) and Phoenix (19-10) for having won the season series 2-1 against each.

But for that to come into play now, one of those teams has to lose its last three games, and the Starzz have to win their last three.

"The door's still open. It's not closed yet," said Starzz coach Fred Williams Thursday night after Cleveland guard Suzie McConnell-Serio had hit a corner ball for three with 21 seconds left in a tie game to qualify the Rockers (16-12) for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

"You wouldn't think a team would take a three at that time," Williams said. "McConnell stepped up and made a nice shot."

When LaTonya Johnson missed a three-pointer attempt with three seconds left, it left the Starzz season clinging to a small tree branch hanging out over a big canyon, and when Phoenix slapped Seattle silly 85-63 two hours later, that branch began to snap.

"I had a good look at it," Johnson said of her missed three in a radio interview. "It just didn't fall." A desperation Jennifer Azzi shot also missed.

Tune in Saturday to find out if the branch breaks and Utah falls out of the playoff picture for the fourth straight year. Phoenix is at league-leading Los Angeles Saturday at 2 p.m. MDT and could clinch its place if it can break the Sparks, who have a 10-game winning streak and have beaten the Mercury twice this season.

Later Saturday, the Starzz are at Charlotte, N.C., at 5 MDT, and by then they'll know if they still have an opportunity to qualify.

Sacramento can clinch a playoff berth tonight when it plays at Minnesota, or it can keep everyone guessing with a loss.

Utah was playing well Thursday, even after Natalie Williams picked up her third foul with 10:14 left in the first half and had to sit out. Adrienne Goodson scored seven quick points and had the Starzz up 26-20, but Cleveland came back with 10-3 run and finished the half up one point.

Williams got her fourth and fifth fouls by 16:34 of the second half, and Margo Dydek got her fourth at 14:56, and the Rockers were free to pound it inside even more. They eventually had an 11-point lead. "It was part of their game plan. They attacked us inside," said Fred Williams, calling that the most hurtful thing for Utah. "Margo and Nat were in foul trouble, and that put a little wrinkle in our plans down the stretch."

The Starzz also contributed 22 turnovers worth 29 Rocker points.

But Utah's small team of Azzi, Korie Hlede, Johnson, Goodson and Amy Herrig brought Utah back to a 57-all tie, and seven quick Hlede points had them up 69-65 before it was outscored 9-2 in the last four minutes.

Cleveland rookie Ann Wauters, the No. 1 choice in the April draft, had a career-high 17 points plus eight rebounds. Guard Merlakia Jones scored 19, and post Chasity Melvin had 12 points, eight boards and frustrated Williams no end. Williams, held to nine points Wednesday at Minnesota, had only three points and three rebounds in 17 minutes of play. For Utah, Hlede had 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting, 3-for-3 on threes, and Goodson added 17 points. Azzi had 12, and Dydek 11 points and seven boards.