ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Courtney Paris remembers the Pit all too well.
As a member of the Oklahoma University women’s basketball team, Paris visited the building twice and both times left as a winner.
Paris is back in Albuquerque today as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks, who will play the Phoenix Mercury in a WNBA exhibition game tonight at the Pit.
It’s a new situation for Paris, who was one of the most decorated players in the history of women’s college basketball. Now she’s coming off a year out of the WNBA and battling for a roster spot with the Sparks.
“It is a little different,” Paris said after a Friday workout at the Pit, “but I’ve been working hard and really trying to show people what I can do. It’s fun but it’s work, too, and I’m learning a lot.”
Business seems to be at the forefront for tonight’s game, which is the final exhibition for both teams before the WNBA season opens next week. While both teams still have roster cuts to make and will play their reserves extensively, the Sparks and Mercury also plan to play their stars.
That means Albuquerque fans can expect to see Los Angeles’ Candace Parker and Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi doing more than relaxing on their respective benches.
“Absolutely,” Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said. “Will they play a ton of minutes? Probably not, but we’ll give them a fair amount. This is the time for them to get their wind back and get ready for games.”
Parker, the former Tennessee star, is particularly eager to get into midseason form. Parker missed most of 2010 after undergoing shoulder surgery and feels she has something to prove.
“I haven’t played a full season in two years,” Parker said. “I’m excited about this season. I feel I still have a lot of room to get better, and I haven’t won a WNBA championship, so I have some things I really want to accomplish.”
Gillom said watching a rested and healthy Parker this season will be a treat for basketball fans.
“She’s one of the best basketball players in the world,” Gillom said. “You name it, she’s got it.”
Phoenix also has one of the most recognized and talented players in women’s basketball. Taurasi, who became an icon during her career at Connecticut, said she looks forward to competing against a team like the Sparks — even in a preseason game.
“These can be funny games because we play L.A. for real in like 10 days,” Taurasi said. “We don’t want to show too much, they don’t want to show too much, so you don’t know how it will go.”
Still, Taurasi said the game will be more than a glorified scrimmage.
“You’ve got players trying to make the rosters and everyone’s trying to learn to play together,” she said. “I think you take the approach to play hard. No matter how many minutes I’m out there, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Paris, meanwhile, is looking forward to having Pit fans on her side for a change.
“It kind of works both ways here,” she said. “When I was here (with Oklahoma), the fans were mean. They don’t like you. But at the same time, it’s a great atmosphere. You look forward to playing in an environment like this, where fans are passionate.”
Several other players in tonight’s game played in the Pit during their college careers, including Los Angeles’ Kristi Toliver (Maryland), Natasha Lacy (TCU and UTEP), and Noelle Quinn (UCLA). Phoenix’s Taylor Lilley (Oregon) and Olayinka Sanni (West Virginia) also played in the building.
Tickets for tonight’s game range from $5 to $10 for bench seats, $10 to $15 for chair seats. Club seats are also $15, with Lobo Level seats at $25. Tickets are available at the Lobo Ticket Office or at www.golobos.com.
NOTE: Los Angeles’ Tina Thompson (back strain) did not make the trip to Albuquerque. She is the only player for either team not expected to play.
Today WNBA exhibition: Sparks vs. Mercury, the Pit, 7 p.m. Tickets: $5-$25, Lobo Ticket Office, 505-925-LOBO