SHOCK WAVE BLOWS DOWN SPARKS L.A.'S CHAMPIONSHIP RUN IS DONE DETROIT 83, SPARKS 78.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The Sparks ran into a Detroit Shock team full of ``pure, unadulterated hustle and desire,'' in the words of Sparks coach Michael Cooper, and lost Game 3 of the WNBA Finals 83-78 Tuesday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Detroit ended the Sparks' quest for a third consecutive championship and completed a shocking turnaround, going from 9-23 last season to champion. And the Shock did it in front of 22,076, the biggest crowd in WNBA history.
``No matter what, I never thought that we would lose,'' Lisa Leslie said. ``I always thought we would `three-peat.' I thought we would win it on the road. That's the way I feel. That's the way my teammates feel. We fought through so much adversity this year to get to this point that some people on the outside do not even know what we've been through.''
In particular, Leslie was referring to the loss of two of their top reserves: Latasha Byears and Rhonda Mapp. Byears was released in June, and later, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office said it was investigating her for allegedly sexually abusing a teammate. Mapp became the first WNBA player to be dismissed from the league for violating its anti-drug policy.
Those off-court adversities depleted the team's bench, but Cooper and his players didn't make excuses Tuesday. Instead, the players were more vocal about their feelings.
``The only thing that's really on my mind right now is `How can I mend my heart?' '' Sparks forward DeLisha Milton said. ``I need to find some way to put it all back together again. It hurts real bad when you come so close. So close, and you just fall short.''
Just like the 62-61 loss in Game 2 that went down to the final possession.
Game 3 also went down to the wire. Detroit's Deanna Nolan came up with the key shot, making a 3-pointer with 53.1 seconds left to give the Shock a 75-73 lead.
The Sparks put themselves in a 14-point hole in the first half and trailed the entire second half until Milton made a jump shot with 5:07 left to give the Sparks a 70-68 lead. The Sparks' biggest lead in the second half was 73-70 with 3:40 left.
The final minutes were full of drama.
Perhaps the biggest sign that the Sparks were done came with 43.6 seconds left, when Leslie fouled out. Cheryl Ford made two free throws to give Detroit a 77-73 lead.
Milton gave the Sparks hope by making a 3-pointer with 23.8 seconds left to pull within 79-78, but that was their final basket. Nolan and Ford made two free throws apiece to seal it.
In the end, Cooper pointed to desire as the difference.
``(Detroit) came out and ran the ball, played good defense and then ran it back down our throat,'' he said. ``That's just pure, unadulterated hustle and desire. They had that hunger. Sometimes, even if you're a champion, it doesn't do you any good to just show up. You've got to come to play. We didn't come out and play.''
Shock center Ruth Riley, whom Leslie had said could not play her one- on-one, scored a career-high 27 points. Leslie, meanwhile, finished with 13 points on 5-of-19 shooting. Mwadi Mabika had 29 points and nine rebounds, and Milton added 19 points to pick up the slack.
The Sparks ended their playoff run without winning a game on the road. Detroit's victory also ended the friendly feud between Cooper, the former Laker, and Shock coach Bill Laimbeer, the former Detroit Piston, who played each other twice in the NBA Finals in the late 1980s.
``The Detroit Shock are definitely worthy of this championship,'' Cooper said. ``They came out from day one and set the tone on what it was going to be like playing against this team, and they followed through all the way. Only thing I don't like is the fact that they made their coach seem like he's a fortune teller or something.''
Joe Stevens, (562) 499-1338
(1 -- color) Sparks center Lisa Leslie (9), who finished with 13 points on 5-of-19 shooting, has the ball knocked out of her hands by Detroit forward Cheryl Ford.
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
(2) Sparks coach Michael Cooper dejectedly watches from the bench during the closing seconds of Detroit's 83-78 title victory.
Paul Warner/Associated Press