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West stars reign again in WNBA

Los Angeles center Lisa Leslie made a statement at the WNBA All-Star Game.

The gist of it: Don't disrespect me.

Leslie accepted her Most Valuable Player trophy to polite applause and a smattering of boos from fans at TD Waterhouse Centre, many of whom likely had conspired to keep Leslie out of the starting lineup.

Yep, they sure showed her.

Leslie had 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots coming off the bench to spark the Western Conference's 80-72 victory against the Eastern Conference in the third All-Star Game before an announced crowd of 16,609 Monday night.

"I wasn't playing out of anger," Leslie said. "I tried to focus: "Okay, I'm going to come off the bench. What can I do to help this team? I can score points, I can get rebounds, I can block shots.' I played with a lot of emotion. My goal was to try to be MVP."

Leslie, a three-time all-star and one of the sport's most visible stars, was not the West's starting center, coming in second to Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith in fan balloting.

But the tally had more to do with Leslie's lack of popularity in opposing arenas _ fans are growing weary of her beating their hometown favorites _ than her status as the league's most dominating center, which on Monday was unchallenged.

As usual, Leslie did it all: driving to the basket, rebounding on both ends of the floor, blocking shots, fighting for loose balls, even dribbling out from under her own basket to lead the fast break.

"When you come into an all-star game, you're nervous and excited," Leslie said. "I tried to have the total game and do all of the different things that I'm capable of doing."

Eastern Conference players were determined not to let this WNBA All-Star Game get out of hand. They were not going to let the Western Conference beat them _ again.

Well, there's always next year.

The talent-laden West leads the series 3-0. A furious rally by the East in the final four minutes trimmed a 19-point deficit, but the outcome was never in question.

Still, it was hard to pick out any losers.

The WNBA faces declining attendance and television ratings, but none of that was in evidence Monday night. Equal parts basketball exhibition and throw-down party, the All-Star Game was a tribute to the fifth-year league's survival and its intense relationship with its core of loyal fans.

"Two weeks from now I'll get someone asking me, "Is your league in trouble?' " said West coach Van Chancellor of four-time league champion Houston. "Well, it didn't look like it was in trouble tonight."

Points, points and more points generally are in order in all-star games, where teams have, at most, two offensive plays. But someone forgot to tell these all-stars that defense is not typically a priority in such showcase events.

When Houston forward Tina Thompson, last's year's All-Star Game MVP, drove the baseline late in the first half, the last thing she or anyone else expected was Orlando's Taj McWilliams-Franklin to draw a charge.

A charge!

But this is the only way WNBA stars know how to play _ hard. All the time. Most of them have spent the past several years playing for their basketball lives, dreaming of a legitimate league in the United States. They don't understand backing off.

"I don't think we have the luxury of the men, to come in and put it on cruise control for three quarters," Leslie said. "We're still trying to get our fans to want to watch the WNBA and see good basketball. So, we do play hard. We take it serious. We're very intense. And the East is tired of getting beat."

The East stayed close for most of the first half, trailing 27-24 with 7:04 left. But the West pulled away with a 10-1 run and led 40-30 at halftime.

Cleveland guard and former University of Florida star Merlakia Jones led the East with 12 points. Orlando's McWilliams-Franklin and Nykesha Sales and Miami's Elena Baranova had 10 each. Seattle rookie Lauren Jackson chipped in 11 for the West.

New York's Tari Phillips, playing in her hometown before family and friends, had nine points and nine rebounds as the East's starting center.