HOUSTON, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Steve Francis scored a career-high 44 points Friday night to steal the spotlight and give Houston a 108-104 overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their matchup began with a bang and had its moments, but the game's biggest star was Francis, who made 12 of 21 shots from the field and 14 of 17 free throws while handing out 11 assists. He made a three-pointer to force overtime, then made six foul shots in the extra session before finding Yao for a crucial dunk without 10.2 seconds remaining.
O'Neal collected 31 points and 13 rebounds. After a slow start, he was simply overpowering at times and showed Yao that he still has a long way to go.
Playing in front of his parents, Yao was no slouch, collecting 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. Until his late dunk, he had done most of his damage in the first five minutes.
Other NBA results: Milwaukee 99, Philadelphia 95; Boston 98, Indiana 93; New Jersey 88, Toronto 77; Detroit 99, New York 82; New Orleans 90, Chicago 83; San Antonio 106, Atlanta 93; Denver 97, Cleveland 80; Phoenix 111, Dallas 106; Seattle 103, Memphis 97.
Canadiens fire coach
MONTREAL, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The Montreal Canadiens became the sixth NHL team in seven weeks to make a coaching change Friday.
Therrien is the second straight coach of the league's most storied franchise to leave without posting a winning record.
The 42-year-old Julien was in his third season with Hamilton of the American Hockey League. The Bulldogs had a league-best 33-6-3-3 record and are on pace to break the 67-year-old mark for wins and points.
Julien leaves the team in the midst of a 25-game points streak (21
Therrien, 39, was named the 25th Canadiens coach on Nov. 20, 2000 and led Montreal to an upset of the top-seeded Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year. The Canadiens had tied a franchise record by missing the playoffs the three previous seasons.
In his brief stint with the club, Therrien compiled a 77-77-13-13 record.
Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore struggled early this season, but improved in December and Montreal was a season-high four games over .500 (16-12-4-2) on Dec. 21. But the Canadiens are 2-7-1-2 in their last 12 games and are tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference.
Serena coasts into round of 16
MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Serena Williams moved one step closer to her fourth straight Grand Slam title Saturday.
Marat Safin, meanwhile, was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open with a wrist injury.
Williams, who struggled in her opening-round match but has been her typically dominating self since, crushed Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand, 6-1, 6-1, in the third round.
Williams joined Kim Clijsters and Meghann Saughnessey in advancing to the round of 16.
Clijsters recorded a 6-2, 6-1 victory over tatiana Poutchek and Shaughnessy was a 6-1, 6-3 winner over Klara Koukalova.
Koukalova was coming off a shocking second-round victory over Monica Seles.
Safin, the third seed and the runner-up here a year ago, was scheduled to take on Rainer Schuettler. But what has been diagnosed as a ligament injury in his left wrist prevented the Russian from playing.
He suffered the injury in a fall in his opening match and managed to play in the second round thanks to an injection of pain killers.
Safin's absence will open the top half of the draw, from which top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt hopes to advance. Hewitt had an evening match scheduled Saturday against Radek Stepanek.
Nieuwendyk reaches 500 goals
RALEIGH, N.C., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Joe Nieuwendyk became the 32nd player in NHL history to score 500 goals Friday night in New Jersey's 2-1 win over Carolina.
The victory came in the opener of a home-and-home series.
The Devils were ousted by the Hurricanes in the first round of last season's playoffs and lost twice to Carolina in October. But the Hurricanes looked nothing like the team that won the Eastern Conference last season.
Carolina has dropped five straight games, is winless in its last six and has just five goals in its last five contests.
An outstanding individual effort by Nieuwendyk accounted for the first goal of the game. The 36-year-old center carried into the Carolina zone, skated around defenseman Sean Hill and deposited the puck past an out-of-position Kevin Weekes with a backhand at 11:18 of the first period.
It was just the sixth goal of the season for Nieuwendyk, who was without a tally in his last four games. He had scoreless droughts of 20 and eight games earlier in the season.
Nieuwendyk became the second player to reach the plateau as a Devil and joined Colorado's Joe Sakic as the second forward to accomplish the feat this season. Sakic recorded the milestone Dec. 11 against Vancouver. Dave Andreychuk scored his 500th with New Jersey on March 15, 1997 against Washington.
Other NHL results: Toronto 4, Washington 1; Pittsburgh 3, Tampa Bay 2; Atlanta 3, Boston 1; Vancouver 4, Chicago 2.
Del Rio joins Jaguars
JACKSONVILLE, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers last season, was introduced Friday as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He succeeds Tom Coughlin, the only coach in team history who was fired Dec. 30 following a 6-10 season.
After dismissing Coughlin, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver indicated he wanted someone with head coaching experience. But during an interview this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Del Rio got the owner to think otherwise.
"The defining aspect was when he asked what was the remaining hurdle, and I said, 'You,'" Del Rio said. "What I meant is, it's easy to get the guy with the long resume and not take the chance. I encouraged him to look at me as a man and the passion I have."
Weaver likely was more receptive after former Vikings coach Dennis Green and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz withdrew from consideration.
Del Rio appeared at an evening news conference that was open to the public at Alltel Stadium. The gathering of vocal fans made the event as much a pep rally as a press gathering.
Del Rio, 39, becomes the second-youngest coach in the NFL behind Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden. Del Rio spent just one season with the Panthers after three years as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens and two with the New Orleans Saints. He was on the Ravens' staff during their Super Bowl championship season of 2000.
Millwood signs for $9.9 million
PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Kevin Millwood's initial season with the Philadelphia Phillies promises to be a lucrative one.
Millwood was one of several major leaguers to beat the arbitration deadline Friday, inking a one-year contract worth $9.9 million.
Millwood, who was acquired from the Atlanta Braves last month, made $3.9 million in 2002. The 28-year-old righthander was 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA in 34 starts for the Braves last season and is expected to head the Phillies' rotation in 2003.
Another player starting 2003 with a new team, Winn also avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal with the Mariners. Financial terms of his pact were not disclosed but Winn made $960,000 in 2002, when he represented Tampa Bay in the All-Star Game.
St. Louis came to terms with its oft-injured outfielder J.D. Drew, who signed a one-year, $3.6 million deal after a season in which he was limited to just 424 at bats.
Goosen, Baddeley share Sony lead
Goosen added only two birdies over the final 15 holes but had only one bogey en route to a 4-under-par 66 in a challenging breeze which gusted to 20 miles per hour on the Waialae Country Club course.
Baddeley, a 21-year-old Australian phenom, finished strongly with three birdies on the final five holes for a 64, the day's best score.
Playing in the same threesome with his good friend Els, Goosen nearly drove it out of bounds at the par-5 ninth and had to settle for par on the easiest hole on the course. But that was about as bad as it got for the 2001 U.S. Open champion.
Els, who won last week's season-opening Mercedes Championship with a PGA Tour-record 31-under-par, shot a 65.
Eberharter overtakes Miller
WENGEN, Switzerland, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Austrian Stephan Eberharter recorded a dominating downhill victory Friday and regained the overall World Cup lead.
The defending World Cup overall, downhill and super-G champion stormed down the classic Lauberhorn course -- the longest on the circuit at 2.8 miles -- in a winning time of 2 minutes, 27.78 seconds. That was 1.11 seconds faster than his nearest challenger, Daron Rahlves of the United States.
It marked Eberharter's seventh World Cup victory this season and fifth in the downhill. Rahlves, who won a downhill in Bormio at the end of December, was second in 2:28.89.
It marked Rahlves' fourth podium finish of the season. The American also placed third in another downhill race in Bormio last week and one in Beaver Creek in early December. Rahlves will have another crack at victory in a second downhill race scheduled Saturday.
Double Olympic champion Hermann Maier, making his comeback to downhill racing after a horrific motorcycle accident in August 2001, finished 22nd. He was 3:15 behind.
Despite a remarkable performance, American Bode Miller was unable to preserve his lead atop the overall standings. Sixth in 2:29.36, Miller handed over the lead to Eberharter, who now tops the standings with 755 points. Miller is second with 730.
Friedel named player of the year
HOLLYWOOD, Fla., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Brad Friedel, goalkeeper of the U.S. team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals, was named Friday as the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year.
U.S. Soccer president Bob Contiguglia made the presentation to Friedel's national team coach Bruce Arena. Friedel was training with his team in England.
Friedel is also a candidate for Player of the Year in England, where he plays with the Premiership side Blackburn. He was an overwhelming favorite in the American voting conducted by media members and fans. Landon Donovan and Brian McBride also were considered for the honor.
Hunter signs with Twins
MINNEAPOLIS, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Torii Hunter signed a four-year, $32 million contract Friday with the Minnesota Twins.
The deal, which enables the Twins to avoid arbitration with their All-Star center fielder, also contains a club option for the 2007 season. Hunter made $2.4 million in 2002.
The 27-year-old Hunter was a starter in last year's All-Star Game and is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner. He hits in the heart of the Twins lineup and last season batted .289 with 29 homers, 94 RBI and 23 stolen bases.
Hunter is part of a core of young players that made Minnesota one of the biggest surprises of 2002. The Twins reached the AL Championship Series but Hunter hit just .167 in the five games.
A Twin his entire six-year career, Hunter was the club's first-round pick in 1993. He is a career .271 hitter with 70 homers and 267 RBI in 537 games.
Sabres sale still on hold
NEW YORK, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Businessmen Mark Hamister and Todd Berman were given a third one-week extension by the NHL Friday in their bid to buy the Buffalo Sabres.
The franchise filed for bankruptcy protection Monday.
Hamister and Berman were introduced as prospective owners of the Sabres in November and faced a Friday deadline to complete the sale after receiving a second extension in as many weeks. But the NHL, already dealing with the financial troubles of the Ottawa Senators, granted the potential owners a third extension.
The reported price tag of $65 million includes the Sabres, Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League, the relating companies associated with the two teams and the rights to HSBC Arena.
The closing of the deal likely rests with the approval of a $33 million assistance package from New York State that would be used for arena and other capital improvements.
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