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West team dominates again in WNBA All-Star showcase

This time was going to be different.

The 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 game's third edition looked much like the first two, an easy 80-72 victory for the talent-laden West before an announced 16,906 Monday night at the TD Waterhouse Centre.

Los Angeles center Lisa Leslie was the game's Most Valuable Player after leading all scorers with 20 points and nine rebounds.

"This was an honor," Leslie said. "I know the East, the crowd is a little upset that we won again, but it was a great time. I'm thankful I'm going back to L.A. with the MVP."

Despite the eight-point differential on the scoreboard, it was hard to pick out any losers.

The WNBA faces declining attendance and television ratings, but none of that was in evidence Monday. Equal parts basketball exhibition and throw-down party, the game was a tribute to the fifth-year league's survival and the intense relationship between the WNBA and 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 when 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 spent the past several years playing for their basketball lives, dreaming of a legitimate league in the United States.

"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.

Eight minutes into the second half, the margin was 17 points and Leslie was confident enough to jaw during a timeout with Orlando Miracle coach Carolyn Peck and point guard Shannon Johnson, seated courtside.

Leslie, a three-time all-star and one of the sport's most visible stars, was not among the West starters selected by fan vote. Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith had that honor. But Leslie's place as the league's most dominating center was unchallenged Monday.

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

"I wasn't playing out of anger," Leslie said. "I tried to focus. Okay, I'm going to come off the bench, but I can still 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."

Trailing 75-56 with 4:24 left, the East staged a furious rally to trim the final margin.

Cleveland guard and former University of Florida star Merlakis Jones led the East with 12 points. Orlando's McWilliams-Franklin and Nykesha Sales and Miami's Elena Baranova had 10 each.

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