- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Storms are rare in Southern California. And even when they do appear, they threaten but seldom do much damage.
Such was the case Sunday when the Los Angeles Sparks hosted the Seattle Storm in the second game of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center. Despite some early showers, the top-seeded Sparks, who trailed 0-1 in the series, weathered the fourth-seeded Storm with a 78-70 victory to force a decisive Game 3 on Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET).
Although it looked as though Seattle (18-17) would advance to the Western Conference Finals against Sacramento in the early going, a second-half surge by the Sparks (26-9) put the brakes on that scenario.
Seventeen-point performances each from Mwadi Mabika and Lisa Leslie paced the Sparks past the Storm, who were 2-1 vs. L.A. in the regular season. And unlike in Game 1 when Seattle forward Lauren Jackson got the best of the Sparks' frontcourt, Leslie had the edge this time as Jackson finished with 13 points and only four field-goal attempts.
But it was Mabika who lit the fire under her team, scoring seven consecutive points in a 9-1 run to cap the second quarter and cut Seattle's lead to 40-33 at halftime.
"Mwadi was great," Sparks coach Joe Bryant said. "We told her that we love her jump shot -- she is a very good shooter -- but go ahead and take it to the basket."
She did just that. Though Mabika capped the pivotal second-quarter run with a 23-foot 3-pointer, she also nailed a pair of free throws and sank a fast-break layup off a steal -- all in a 1-minute, 42-second span. Not bad for someone who had gone scoreless in the first period.
"I just saw that we were in trouble and I started thinking about the past and how we got knocked out in the first round," said Mabika, whose performance doubled her regular-season scoring average. "And I said, 'You know what? If we're going to lose we might as well lose with a fight.' I said I'm a leader and it's going to start with me. And that's when I started trying to take over."
Mabika was even better after the break. The Sparks forward scored nine points during that period, four of which came off of drives past stunned Storm defenders.
Seattle coach Anne Donovan said Mabika was the turning point in the game.
"It was vintage Mabika," Donovan said. "Mabika coming out on fire in the third quarter really made the difference. She just came after us. I don't think we did a good job of shutting her down."
Added Seattle's Jackson, who scored just two points in the final quarter: "[Mabika] was just awesome. She was unbelievable. She came out and gave them the lift they needed. Much credit to her."
Prior to Mabika's heroics, the Storm led the Sparks by as many as 15 in the first half and shot a respectable 53 percent in the opening quarter. Bryant, who last week said he had a "bag of tricks" he planned to use against the Storm, made good on that promise by switching to a zone in the second half.
"The third quarter was a problem for us," Donovan said. "We scored at will against their man-to-man, but when he switched to zone we just stopped moving the ball. "I don't think we really got our composure back in the second half and that's not our M.O. We've been a good team in responding when a team goes on a run. I don't think we did that tonight."
Betty Lennox, who led the Storm with 19 points and eight rebounds, concurred.
"Obviously this is the playoffs and we knew they were going to come back and be aggressive on that run,"she said. "We just didn't maintain that run. We didn't get back. I think we helped them by turning the ball over. We knew this wasn't going to be easy by far and we just didn't handle it well down the stretch."
It won't get any easier for the Storm if they have to go without Sue Bird on Tuesday. The Storm guard was inadvertently hit in the nose in the third period and might have broken her nose for the third time. Bird was taken to Centinela Hospital for examination. She finished the night with eight points and three assists.
Leslie, who was held to nine points in the first half, also came alive in the final 20. She scored only two points in the third and connected on 4-of-4 free throws in the fourth, but said Mabika was key in getting the team to focus down the stretch.
"Mwadi would not be denied and she kept telling us, 'You guys, it's OK. We're going to win this game, don't worry about it.' She was fired up and she was just like, 'Lisa, take your time, you're going a little bit too fast, slow down a little bit.'
"She stepped up and probably did things that she hadn't done all year, but that we know she's capable of. It was great to see her passion and her fight. It really ignited the rest of our team."
Miki Turner, a freelance TV producer and writer in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.