Sparks hold off Mercury, Diana Taurasi to win fifth in a row

Their 21-point lead whittled down to two with 4:55 to play, the Los Angeles Sparks found themselves on the verge of a collapse against the Phoenix Mercury.

But all of a sudden, the Sparks’ defense settled back into place. First it was a Mercury turnover, then four missed shots by Phoenix, then another turnover, then another two misses.

By the time Phoenix scored again, the Sparks had forced eight straight stops and gone on a 6-0 run to create enough breathing room to hold on for an 83-74 win in Bradenton, Florida.

“We were just playing catch up and then we decided. We made the decision: we gotta lock down defensively, but also secure the board,” Sparks guard Chelsea Gray said. “We just decided to lock down defensively and execute on the offensive end as well.”

It marked the fifth win in a row for the Sparks (8-3), who had four of their five starters score in double figures. Gray, Candace Parker and Brittney Sykes scored 16 apiece, while Nneka Ogwumike added 10.

The Sparks’ offense got moving quickly behind the play of Parker. The All-Star forward has been picky about when she chooses to be assertive on offense this season. But she poured in 11 in the first quarter with a pair of 3-pointers.

“Our team really thrives when we push the ball in transition and I think it was just trying to attack the paint and getting in the paint early and making the smart decision, whether I was finishing or whether I was kicking out for open 3-point shooters,” said Parker, who added 12 rebounds and four assists.

A Seimone Augustus jumper at the end of the first gave the Sparks a 14-point advantage, and Mercury guard Diana Taurasi spiked the ball in frustration as the teams headed to their benches.

But the second quarter did little to alleviate Phoenix’s frustrations. A dozen first-half turnovers kept the Mercury from going on any substantive run. Phoenix’s three leading scorers — Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith — combined to go 3 for 15 from the floor in the first half as the Sparks built a 16-point halftime advantage.

“We played with more force and really took them out of a lot of the things they were trying to get accomplished offensively,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said.

But the defensive effort didn’t hold up over the course of the game for the Sparks. The Mercury finished shooting 43.9% from the floor and made one third of their 21 attempts from 3-point range. If not for the Mercury’s 17 turnovers — 12 of which came on Sparks steals — the outcome could have been different.

Taurasi went on to make four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to spur the Mercury comeback attempt. But when the time came, the Sparks’ defense was able to create enough stops to hold on for the win, and to secure a season sweep of the Mercury.

Though, the Sparks noted, that final defensive effort only came out of desperation with a win slipping away, an issue that the team wants to address in future games.

“Once the game was back in the position where you don’t get stops, you don’t win, you know, we started getting stops again,” Fisher said. “That really was the difference in the game.”

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Sparks’ new additions Reshanda Gray, Te’a Cooper ready for WNBA bubble

Down a couple of All-Stars, the L.A. Sparks have filled Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver’s slots at forward and guard with Reshanda Gray and Te’a Cooper — opportunities that feel fateful for both women.

Gray is a 27-year-old native Angeleno who grew up going to Sparks games, screaming for T-shirts and waiting afterward to meet players: “When I put that Sparks jersey on, I think I might cry,” said Gray, who Wednesday sported a T-shirt that read “Change Has No Offseason,” a reference to the team’s new social justice initiative. “Like, it’s like a dream come true that I get to rep the purple and gold and play for my home team.”

Cooper, 23, is a rookie point guard who grew up in Georgia and who just might have sung the Sparks’ invitation into existence. She hasn’t forgotten the song she created for school when she was about 6 years old, rapping the lyrics for reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday: “I was like, ‘It’s Te’a from the arc / I shoot it from the park-ing lot / I’m hot, I should be on the Sparks.

An aggressive rebounder, after two seasons out of the WNBA, Gray thought she’d established herself last season with the New York Liberty, and said she was hurt when she was waived May 26.

Cooper was one of the most exciting prospects in the WNBA Draft, but when the pandemic robbed her and other rookies of a training camp to prove themselves, the Phoenix Mercury waived her on May 26, too.

Both players said they were dutifully staying in shape, but that neither was expecting the call from the Sparks to join the team — considered among the WNBA title favorites heading into a 22-game regular season and prospective playoffs, all of which are set to take place this month at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The 2020 season was supposed to start May 15 before being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic that first shut down play in South Korea, where Gray was was playing well for Asan Woori Bank Wibee, and then abruptly curtailed Cooper’s college career at Baylor.

“Korea was really well prepared,” said Gray, a former Washington Prep high school standout who who credits advice she received from Kobe Bryant when she was 14 with helping her navigate life’s challenges en route to professional basketball career and her position as a mentor for L.A. youth.

“They had tests ready, they had temperatures ready, they had heat sensors ready,” Gray added. “(And then) when things started calming down in Korea and getting back safe, that’s when the United States started to take a toll. And it was scary, because I’m leaving one quarantine and going into another.

“I just leaned on my faith in the end and I just tried to — I feel like if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. But that doesn’t mean you go out there and be like, ‘Give it to me.’ You take care of yourself, you social distance, you wear a mask, you wash your hands, and you stay out of people’s faces. I just lean on my faith and I just try to be positive about the situation and try to be prepared and worry about safety.”

Ogwumike and Toliver were among the players who’ve opted out of this truncated WNBA season, citing a desire to focus on their health. Other players have said they want to dedicate the time to advocate for racial justice in the United States following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.

For her part, Cooper said she isn’t concerned about playing in the confined environment that will be instituted by the WNBA in order to limit players’ potential exposure to COVID-19. There will be regular coronavirus screenings and limited contact with those outside of the league.

“I’m not really an outside type of person, so I’m not really struggling with the idea of the bubble,” Cooper said. “I mean, beside that you can’t bring a plus-one. I would like for my family to be there, but other than that, I mean, we get to play. I get to be in the WNBA. I’m considered a professional. I get to get a jersey. I’m pretty optimistic about it. This is the opportunity I get, so I’m pretty happy and blessed.

“With everything that’s going on in the world, I get to take my mind off that.”

Just as athletes train year-round to be elite on the court, we all need to work together year-round to fight for justice and equality off the court.
To be a part of the change, visit https://t.co/X51vgSEtwf#ChangeHasNoOffseason #GoSparks #LeadTheCharge
@LA_Sparks pic.twitter.com/Xa1QVNvk3M

— Reshanda Gray (@nograyareas21) July 1, 2020

Dream come true 🤯🤭🖤🤗🙏#BlessedAndGrateful pic.twitter.com/THst0o30f6

— Tc2 (@TeaCooper2) June 29, 2020

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Sparks celebrate inclusion, equity at fifth #WeAreWomen event

LOS ANGELES — Before the Sparks took the court Sunday for a key 84-72 victory over the Connecticut Sun at Staples Center, the tea’s #WeAreWomen campaign extended a fifth year with a pregame panel featuring accomplished women from the world of sports and entertainment who shared their thoughts on the importance of diversity and inclusion, equality and equity.

“I feel like our league is a representation of diversity and inclusion,” said Danita Johnson, the Sparks’ President and COO. “When we started this league back in ’97, we were one of the first spots teams to ever be inclusive to the LGBT community, when we talk about diversity on the court from our front office, we’re one of the few African American-led sports teams, not only in the W, but in sports, period.

“So I think on and off the court, we represent all different walks of life and we’re super excited about what we get to do.”

“Stop falling for the stereotypes,” said Naz Aletaha, head of LOL Esports Partnerships and Global Esports Business Development for Riot Games, who was joined by Epic Records’ Michelle Edgar, Overwatch League’s Kristin Connelly, Vision Venture Partners’ Eryn McVerry and sports agent and Disrupt the Game founder Allison Galer.

“Stereotypes are doing all of us a disservice when it comes to not just our businesses, but the people that we hire,” Aletaha continued. “I think as women and as industry leaders, we should be looking to hire not just who we think our demographic is, but forming these diverse and inclusive teams so that we can provide the best experience and product to our very diverse audiences.”

It was the kind of message that Sparks Coach Derek Fisher said excited him about taking the job with one of the WNBA’s original franchises, which features women in leading roles in basketball and business operations.

“That’s one of the reasons why I got excited about accepting this job, because there are some elements to coaching and working in the W that you don’t have elsewhere,” Fisher said. “You have an opportunity I think to play a bigger role in the community, in impacting young girls and young women and different groups and organizations and people that I think don’t necessarily come with other sports leagues. So I think we’re fortunate from that standpoint.

“And hopefully we’re doing a good job as an organization of letting people know that for us it’s normal … we’re run by women for the most part, and again, that’s another reason why I was excited about being a part of this organization.”

APPRECIATING ANDREW LUCK

The Sparks’ Ogwumike sisters were thinking about their fellow former Stanford star on Sunday.

The previous evening, Andrew Luck, a former No. 1 overall draft pick in the NFL, said he was retiring because he couldn’t take the years of pain and rehabilitation spurred by a long list of injuries that included a lacerated kidney, injured ribs, at least one concussion, torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and a calf and ankle injury.

The announcement stunned football fans, and drew boos from Colts fans at a game.

But the Ogwumikes cheered Luck, recalled the humility he showed in college, and applauded his accomplishments.

“He just, he’s just an upstanding person, talented on and off the field,” said Nneka Ogwumike, who attended Stanford from 2008-12, the same years as Luck, whom she remembers riding his bike anonymously between classes. “You can never really be sad for anyone who has clarity and walks away from the game knowing they gave it all that he had and I know that he definitely did. He’s a role model in so many different ways and he’ll be even more appreciated off the field when people see exactly what he can do outside of the sport.”

A. Luck,

The game is going to miss you, but the world will appreciate you so even more than before. So honored to have been able to share 4 years of greatness with you at @Stanford. Your legacy remains. ❤🤓

— Nneka Ogwumike (@Nnemkadi30) August 25, 2019

 

Said Chiney, who was two years behind her sister and the star quarterback: “I’m so proud of Andrew, because of his bravery, and knowing how much he’s given to the game.”

She said she was stung by the negative response he received from Indianapolis fans.

“It was unfortunate to hear those people booing him because that was like a visceral reaction,” she said. “He said it hurt, and I understand that; when I went back to Connecticut and got booed, everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ But I was like it, ‘Sorta hurts a little bit.’ Because you cared for the fans and you did your best there.

“But I do think the more people realize that athletes do need to do what’s best for them, or at least need to find balance in their lives. Money’s not everything. It’s just crazy because to question his decision: Why you gonna question someone who’s walking away from everything in the world? He must really mean it, right?

“So I’m proud of him, and wish the best of luck to the Colts, too, bouncing back,” she added. “That might be a tall hill to climb.”

Andrew Luck is one of the best people I’ve known, dating back to our high school days in Houston.

I also witnessed all the magic he brought to Stanford.

But as a comeback kid myself, I completely understand the toll that injuries can take on your mind, body& especially spirit.

— Chiney Ogwumike (@Chiney321) August 25, 2019

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Candace Parker shows glimpses of herself in Sparks’ victory over Aces

LOS ANGELES — It was only a matter of time before the real Candace Parker showed up.

Sidelined for the first seven games of the WNBA season because of a hamstring injury, the Sparks’ two-time league MVP struggled in her first three games. She was shooting 17.9 percent (5 for 28) from the field and had gone 2 for 11 from 3-point range going into Thursday night’s game against Las Vegas.

The 33-year-old looked like a superstar again in the 86-74 victory at Staples Center. She handled the ball with confidence, beat defenders off the dribble and finished inside and stepped into 3-point attempts and knocked them down.

“Everybody just sit back and watch,” Sparks guard Chelsea Grey said. “She’s coming along and I have ultimate confidence in her. I’m not worried at all about anything. She’s progressing. I love having her on the floor. She draws attention by just being out there.”

Parker played a season-high 32 minutes and finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three assists on 6-of-12 shooting. She helped the Sparks build a 40-34 halftime lead with a 12-point first half.

As Parker woke up, so did the Sparks (5-6), who snapped a four-game losing streak by beating a loaded Aces squad.

But is she satisfied with her current state of conditioning?

“Hell no,” Parker said. “I’m not where I want to be or should be.”

Parker strained her hamstring in the preseason opener, and she admitted it’s taken her a while to regain her explosiveness. She has been doing extra conditioning to get back in shape.

“The ability to stay low has been hard for me,” Parker said. “Just getting my legs back. Those first two games my legs were heavy after a down-and-back. Every game, every practice it’s feeling better.”

Indeed, the Sparks looked much looser on Thursday with Parker’s comfort on the court improving. At her best, the 6-foot-4 forward is showcasing a multitude of skills – finishing in the post, dribbling around defenders, setting up teammates with crisp passes after drawing a crowd, blocking shots down low, knocking down jumpers.

She showed glimpses of that against the Aces. But she still committed nine turnovers and looked slow to react at times. Head coach Derek Fisher said after the game that she was “working her way back to her elite level.”

But Thursday’s performance was a stark improvement from the 5.7 points she had been averaging through her first three games – all rough losses for the Sparks. Against the Aces, the five-time All-Star showed neither injuries nor age have gotten the best of her career just yet.

“As my legs come back, I’m going to have the ability to take more of those shots and make them,” Parker said. “Take them with confidence. My teammates have told me to stay with it. I just stuck with it.”

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Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird lead Storm past Sparks

SEATTLE — Breanna Stewart scored 20 of her 27 points in the second half and Sue Bird had 10 points and 11 assists to help the Seattle Storm beat the short-handed Sparks 81-72 on Thursday night.

Natasha Howard added 14 points, and Jewell Loyd had 13 for the Storm (11-5). Candace Parker led the Western Conference-leading Sparks with 27 points and 11 rebounds, but Nneka Ogwumike, a four-time WNBA All-Star, missed her second consecutive game with a back injury.

Bird made a pull-up jumper and a 3-pointer before assisting on back-to-back baskets by Alysha Clark and Howard during a 20-7 opening run and Seattle never trailed. The Sparks (11-4) tied it twice early in the fourth quarter, but Clark converted a three-point play before Stewart made a driving layup and then hit a 3-pointer to make it 74-63 with 3:48 to play.

Chelsea Gray’s layup pulled the Sparks within four about two minutes later, but Bird answered with a jumper and Loyd, after stealing the ensuing inbound pass, hit two free throws as the Storm pulled away.

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Sparks’ 8-game winning streak ends with 88-77 loss to Lynx

  • Minnesota Lynx players congratulate guard Renee Montgomery as Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker walks past during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT328

    Minnesota Lynx players congratulate guard Renee Montgomery as Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker walks past during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT328

  • Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, left, drives on Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT329

    Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, left, drives on Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT329

  • Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery and Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray race for the ball during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT326

    Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery and Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray race for the ball during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT326

  • Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery, right, and Sparks guard Chelsea Gray watch the ball get away during the second quarter of Thursday’s game in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

    Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery, right, and Sparks guard Chelsea Gray watch the ball get away during the second quarter of Thursday’s game in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

  • Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles drives between Los Angeles Sparks players, including Candace Parker, left, during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT325

    Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles drives between Los Angeles Sparks players, including Candace Parker, left, during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT325

  • Minnesota Lynx players congratulate guard Renee Montgomery during the second half of the team’s WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT331

    Minnesota Lynx players congratulate guard Renee Montgomery during the second half of the team’s WNBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT331

  • Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery, left, is fouled by Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT327

    Minnesota Lynx guard Renee Montgomery, left, is fouled by Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT327

  • Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore goes up for a rebound against the Los Angeles Sparks during a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT324

    Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore goes up for a rebound against the Los Angeles Sparks during a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT324

  • Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, right, grabs the ball next to Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT322

    Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, right, grabs the ball next to Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT322

  • Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen celebrates a basket during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks in a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT321

    Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen celebrates a basket during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks in a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 6, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: MNMIT321

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sylvia Fowles had 20 points and 13 rebounds, Renee Montgomery scored a season-high 20 points, and the Minnesota Lynx beat the Sparks, 88-77, on Thursday night in a rematch of the WNBA Finals.

The Sparks won the title last year, taking the deciding fifth game in Minnesota on Nneka Ogwumike’s short jumper with 3.1 seconds left.

On Thursday, Minnesota (13-1) was ahead by 19 points in the first half, but the Sparks (12-4) cut it to 53-49 midway through the third quarter. The Sparks had won eight straight.

Plenette Pierson’s 3-pointer from the wing with 7:31 left gave Minnesota its first double-digit lead of the fourth quarter. Fowles made a layup for an 84-77 lead with 1:23 left. After a Sparks turnover, Rebekkah Brunson followed her own miss for a nine-point lead.

Seimone Augustus added 16 points for Minnesota, and Maya Moore had 10 to move past Asjha Jones for 30th in WNBA history with 4,007.

Ogwumike had 27 points and 14 rebounds for the Sparks. Candace Parker was scoreless in the first half and her only points came on a fast-break layup with 6:26 left in the third quarter. It was only her second game this season scoring under 10 points.

Minnesota’s backups outscored the Sparks reserves, 33-17, highlighted by Montgomery’s four 3-pointers.

“The bench is everything to us,” Fowles said after her eighth double-double of the season. “When we can’t get it done, they always come in to give us that extra push. We rely on them a lot. So I’m happy that they were ready tonight and they came out and gave us that edge.”

Montgomery made a 3-pointer to give Minnesota an 18-8 lead and her second 3 of the quarter made it 23-14. The Lynx led by 11 after the first quarter as the Sparks turned it over six times.

At the end of the third quarter, Montgomery dribbled down the clock and caught a defender on a pump fake before draining her fourth straight 3-pointer for a 68-61 lead.

What will the Sparks have to do differently next time?

“I’ll have to watch the film on that but I’m hoping we’ll get off to a better start,” Coach Brian Agler said. “Obviously, you have to match their intensity and their focus from the very beginning. Without even watching the film on that I can tell you that needs to improve.”

Ogwumike saw some positives she could take from the outcome.

“It’s another stepping stone in our progression as a team. We’re not the same team as we were last year and we want to make strides,” she said. “We learned from a great team. We fought back into the game, but it’s going to be difficult to try and win a game when you’re down the whole time.”

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