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Starzz fade late in loss to Sparks

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OK, they're not yet good enough to beat what looks like the best team in the WNBA, the Los Angeles Sparks.

Not even in the Delta Center with a lively, season-high crowd of 7,044 really trying to sway the outcome.

The winning streak is over. Candi Harvey lost her first game as a head coach of the Utah Starzz.

But the encouraging thing about Tuesday night's 79-67 Starzz loss to the league-leading Sparks was that they found nothing encouraging about playing L.A. very strongly until the final five minutes when the Sparks turned a one-point lead into a 12-point victory.

"We're past that," said Starzz captain Jennifer Azzi about finding moral victories, such as the way the Starzz felt about last week's 13-point loss at Los Angeles, in which the Starzz were upset at losing but found tremendous improvement in what turned out to be the last game for coach Fred Williams.

With that, the Starzz beat East leader Cleveland in the Delta Center and came from 17 points down Sunday to win at Portland.

So, a near-miss is no longer good enough. And this was a near miss — a one-point game with less than five minutes left.

So what?

It is no longer good enough. It felt like a loss to Azzi. "We definitely wanted to win. I think we could have beaten them," she said.

If the 7-9 Starzz hadn't been good enough — shooting 63 percent in the first half — to force 15-3 L.A. into playing a zone, they might have done just that.

Sparks coach Michael Cooper said, "We went into a zone more than we wanted to, but you do what you have to do to win."

"We didn't move, cut, slash and attack against the zone," said Harvey. "We got very passive against it. We just lost our aggressiveness."

"This is a really athletic, tall team," said Starzz center Margo Dydek about the Sparks, "so if they stay in the zone in the second half, it was just kind of difficult for us. We don't move well or execute well against the zone. But this is the first time we've seen this kind of zone."

Dydek led the first-half Starzz charge with 5-for-6 shooting, including a career-best 3-for-3 on 3-pointers. She had 14 points at the half and finished with 21.

"They left me open, so I just shot," Dydek said. "I like that shot because I have great passing lanes to Natalie (Williams), to post-to-post, high-low passing."

Williams finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, while Adrienne Goodson had 13, and Marie Ferdinand 11 for Utah.

Mwadi Mabika led L.A. with 19 points, 17 in the second half, and DeLisha Milton and Lisa Leslie had 16 each, while Tamekca Dixon added 15.

The Starzz lost some of their poise against the Sparks' second-half zone, trying to make what Azzi called "the glamorous play" with 15-20 seconds left on the shot clock instead of getting the ball back to the point guard to re-set. "I have to demand it. I have to go get it. I want to get the ball back if things break down — I can see it happening."

Instead, the Starzz forced shots and missed most of them.

It was 62-61 with 4:50 left, but the Starzz missed eight of their last 10 shots, while L.A. scored on 10 of its last 11 possessions, missing only on a long three at the buzzer.

Mabika came off the Sparks' bench to score L.A.'s first seven points of the second half, helping to cut a 42-36 Utah lead to 45-43, while Starzz turnovers began to mount. They committed four turnovers and missed a shot on five possessions and got stuck on 45 points, while L.A. went up 47-45. Milton hit three straight, mainly on 15-foot baseline shots against the Starzz's zone, and two more Mabika baskets had L.A. up eight.

A Williams rebound basket left Utah down by one going into the homestretch, but L.A. had the better horses from there.

Utah lost a chance to move up in the standings as Portland and Seattle both lost. The Starzz now enter a home-and-home series with third-place Sacramento Monarchs, which beat Houston 78-76 Tuesday. Utah is at Sacramento, Calif., on ESPN2 Thursday at 8 p.m. MDT and goes into the WNBA All-Star Game break with a 1 p.m. Delta Center game against the Monarchs Saturday.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com