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Parker, Leslie combine for 31 in first half as Sparks stay alive

PHOENIX -- The Los Angeles Sparks played with the desperation of a team on the brink of elimination -- and a player facing the end of her career.

Candace Parker had 24 points and 18 rebounds, Lisa Leslie scored 20 points, and the Sparks forced a deciding third game of the Western Conference finals with an 87-76 victory over the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night.

"We're very desperate, yes," said Leslie, who has said she will retire at the end of the season. "I think when your back's to the wall and now they're in that position and they'll have to sleep the way we slept."

Leslie and Parker combined for 31 first-half points as the third-seeded Sparks ran out to an early lead and had a 49-34 advantage by halftime. Phoenix pulled within nine in the second half after Leslie picked up her fifth foul with 6:23 left in the third.

The Mercury later cut the deficit to 75-67 with 3:59 left but got no closer.

"They came out like the team that had to win the game and they did that throughout the 40 minutes," said Diana Taurasi, who led Phoenix with 25 points. "We played like the team that was up 1-0 and for whatever reason it's 1-1 and Game 3 [Saturday] at home so we can't really ask for anything more."

Taurasi made 9 of 17 from the field before fouling out in the final minute while fellow all-WNBA first-teamer Cappie Pondexter had 19 to lead Phoenix. Outside of Taurasi, the Mercury shot 18 for 51 (35 percent) after leading the league with a 46 percent average during the regular season.

The Mercury, who had the best regular-season record in WNBA at 23-11, beat Los Angeles 103-94 in Wednesday's series opener.

Phoenix finished the night 7 of 20 (35 percent) from beyond the arc after making 14 3-pointers in Wednesday's win.

"We never got into our style of play, didn't rebound the ball and didn?t second chance shots, it hurts you," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said.

Betty Lennox added 17 points and Tina Thompson had 11 points and seven rebounds for the Sparks, who shot 42 percent (31 for 74) and outrebounded the Mercury 43-28.

Phoenix was held well under the 100 points a game they averaged in their first four playoff games. Tangela Smith scored 14 points.

Smith hit two jumpers to cut the lead to 56-47 with 4:37 left in the third after Leslie got three fouls in a 2:22 span, forcing her to the bench for the rest of the period.

"And really, probably wasn't to our favor anyway [because] she got to sit down and get some rest," Gaines said.

Leslie played the entire fourth quarter without fouling out.

The Sparks slowed down the Mercury's running game at the outset, jumping to a 15-4 lead in the first 5 minutes. Los Angeles made 12 of 25 from the field in the first quarter while Phoenix missed seven of its first 10 shots and were outrebounded 13-2, trailing 31-17 after the first 10 minutes.

"It kind of looks like either team that jumps out on the other one first is probably going to win," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. "But I thought we stuck to our game plan."

The Mercury were held to 13-of-34 shooting in the first half and outrebounded 24-12 as Los Angeles led by as much as 20 in the first half.

"I thought we did a much better job of setting up our offense and executing and also sticking with our defensive schemes," Leslie said. "The first game, they really jumped on us so for us it's going to be important to start the game out strong and being the aggressors."

The Mercury won three of four during regular season, the loss coming at home in the regular-season finale in a game Taurasi sat out.

"It's all about will," Leslie said. "It's the will to win. For us, we are not ready to go home."