Leslie finishes off victory for West without starting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - The fury of being scorned showed on Lisa Leslie's face every time she scored last night during the third annual WNBA All-Star Game.

Leslie, one of the fledgling league's more recognizable figures as the center for the Los Angeles Sparks, what with her commercials and modeling career, somehow didn't get voted onto the starting lineup for the Western Conference after winning the game's Most Valuable Player honors last year.

So despite her best protests to the contrary, the 6-foot-5 Leslie took it upon herself to punish the Eastern stars and the home crowd - with a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds in just 23 minutes - to give the West its third straight All-Star victory, 80-72, at TD Waterhouse Centre before a sellout crowd of 16,906.

Leslie also took home her second straight MVP award.

"I wasn't playing out of anger," said Leslie, who is third in the league in scoring and rebounding this season. "What I tried to do was focus and I decided, 'OK, I'm going to come off the bench. What can I do to help this team? I can get out there, still score points, rebound and block shots.' I was focused on what I wanted to do and my goal was to try to be MVP."

Western Conference coach Van Chancellor of the Houston Comets, the Sparks' chief nemesis, noticed Leslie's fiery intensity.

"Lisa Leslie looked to me like she was on a mission," Chancellor said. "She wanted to make everybody know that they should have voted for her."

Punctuating each of her eight made shots (in 14 attempts) with a taunting finger in the air, Leslie was brilliant on a night when hardly anyone else seemed to want to be, hitting from the perimeter as well as on the low block.

"I think she goes out and does that almost every night," said Eastern coach Richie Adubato of the New York Liberty. "We've played against her enough; I've seen enough performances by her to know that she plays the game with a passion. She's out to prove something every night."

About the only thing Leslie didn't do was dunk, a stated goal of hers.

"I was very focused on getting a dunk, and the opportunity never really came," Leslie said. "They [the East] were focused on making sure I didn't get a dunk. It is a part of the game, and when it comes, it will happen. One of these days, we will get a dunk in a WNBA game, and probably in an All-Star Game."

Leslie's performance was just part of the West's inside dominance. Centers Yolanda Griffith (Sacramento) and Lauren Jackson (Seattle) each scored in double figures, with Griffith pouring in 17 points and Jackson chipping in 11.

"It was a little too much of Griffith and Lisa Leslie," Adubato said. "They both played tremendous games. Between the two of them, you are talking 15-for-22 on the floor. So we didn't have any answer for them. And we realize that in an All-Star game, people come to see individual performances, so it's not like a regular game where you can have some different coverages that you can change to."

The West led by 17 points with 10:39 left after Leslie's drive and score. But just as in February's NBA All-Star Game in Washington, the West had to hold off a furious East charge as Miami center Elena Baranova hit a jumper to cut the lead to 78-72.

However, Sacramento guard Ticha Penicheiro, one of three Monarchs in the starting lineup, sank two free throws in the final minute, and the East was unable to get off a shot in the final seconds.

"Wasn't it an exciting finish when the East came back?" Chancellor said. "If they [the home viewing audience] didn't get a sense of excitement, what they had better do is call their best friend and call the funeral home because they are ready for a little funeral. If you couldn't feel that at home watching the television, you might as well go ahead and kiss it off; you're dead."

NOTE: WNBA president Val Ackerman said the 16-team league has no plans to expand or to relocate struggling franchises. The league, which began play in 1997 as an eight-team operation, quickly grew to 10 teams in its second year, to 12 in the third year, and took on four more franchises for the 2000 season. Attendance has flagged in Charlotte, Detroit and Utah, and has been slow to build in Los Angeles. But while Philadelphia and Chicago have expressed interest in getting either expansion teams or relocated franchises, Ackerman said the league is concentrating on bolstering its weak spots.

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