HOUSTON (AP) -- The Los Angeles Sparks kept it from being a perfect day for the Houston Comets.
The only champions the WNBA has ever known, the Comets celebrated their fourth straight league title with pregame ceremonies Monday and then almost won their season opener despite missing two of their stars. But Latasha Byears clinched Los Angeles' 66-63 victory with a layup with four seconds to play.
''I'm just happy to be part of this team,'' said Byears, who scored 15 points. ''I'm getting a new start. I just want to contribute, rebounding and doing other things.''
The Comets, playing without superstars Cynthia Cooper (retired) and Sheryl Swoopes (injured), still made a game of it, pulling within 64-63 with 1:06 to play.
''They're still the champions, you've got to respect that,'' Byears said. ''They were playing off the emotion of the crowd, the ring ceremony. They're not going to just lie down and let somebody come in here and just run over them.''
On the final shot, Byears came out of a scramble under the Sparks basket and made the winning layup. Byears also led the Sparks with 10 rebounds.
''We fought and played as hard as we could humanly play, we just couldn't make our shots in the latter part of the game,'' Comets coach Van Chancellor said. ''I think we'll eventually settle down and get the shots.''
Lisa Leslie added 15 points for Los Angeles, which avenged a sweep by the Comets in last season's playoffs.
''It wasn't a pretty game, but it was a game we wanted to win and we got that one,'' Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. ''The key, I thought, was Rhonda Mapp and Latasha Byears. They did exactly what we brought them here to do.''
Tina Thompson had 23 points and Johnson added 11 for the Comets, who received their championship rings in pregame ceremonies.
Swoopes, out for the season following reconstructive knee surgery, hobbled onto the court on red and blue crutches decorated with tiny blinking lights. Cooper, now coach of the Phoenix Mercury, held one of the Comets' four championship trophies.
''It was a reality check coming back here to that sea of red and the Compaq Center it made me realize I'm not playing for the Comets anymore,'' Cooper said. ''My first order of business was to keep from crying through the ceremony.''
The Comets pulled into a 35-35 halftime tie on a last-second basket by Thompson on a pass from No. 1 draft pick Amanda Lassiter.
''I thought we gave a good effort, but obviously it was not good enough,'' Thompson said. ''I think now the other teams are going to realize they have to play us. Before, there were doubts about what this team could do and how competitive we'd be.
''If we'd made a couple of more shots that we normally make, it's a different ballgame.''
The Comets started fast in the second half as Tiffani Johnson scored six points in an 11-3 run for a 46-38 lead. Then the Comets went scoreless for 5:09 and Los Angeles regained the lead at 49-47 on a 3-pointer by Mwadi Mabika with 9:23 left in the game.
The Sparks finally got the lead for good, breaking from a 55-55 tie on a jumper by Mapp with 5:51 to play.
''They played tough down the stretch,'' Cooper said of Mapp and Byears. ''That last 40 seconds, Byears came down with a key offensive rebound, put it back in and that's what we want from her.''
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