Sparks fail to break losing streak before Olympic break

LOS ANGELES — Make it six. The Sparks haven’t tasted victory in 17 days, and now they’ll have to wait another month to break the WNBA’s longest current losing streak of six games.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lynx stayed hot, continuing the league’s longest winning streak to seven with a 86-61 victory Sunday.

By the end of it, the crowd of 892 at Los Angeles Convention Center grew eerily silent in the last game before they return to Staples Center.

From the tip the Lynx carried the momentum taking a 16-point lead in the first quarter shooting 80% from the field while the Sparks shot 27.8%. Minnesota cooled off slightly, finishing the game shooting 55.9%.

“The one thing you can’t question is our effort, we’re down bodies and we’re still trying to get it done,” Sparks guard Erica Wheeler said.

Napheesa Collier scored a game-high 27 for the Lynx. The third-year forward will play in her first Olympics as the WNBA breaks for the summer games.

Sparks backcourt Wheeler (14 points, 6 assists) and Brittney Sykes (14) led the team in scoring.

Los Angeles started the third-quarter on a 6-0 run cutting the lead to once 18 point lead down to six, but the Lynx responded to the Sparks attempts to get back into the game later taking their largest lead (28) in the fourth quarter.

The Sparks have had a myriad of comebacks, but have only come out the victor once – May 28 when Nneka Ogwumike was still on the floor playing with the team.

“In a way we’ve won a lot of these games for ourselves,” Sykes said. “We just we just gotta keep going, you gotta keep fighting.”

The Sparks fell in a similar fashion to the Lynx last month 80-64 after overcoming a 17 point deficit.

Sunday’s game mirrored the first matchup’s chippiness. Technical fouls were called on both the Sparks (Wheeler, Bria Holmes) and Lynx (coach Cheryl Reeve) along with one flagrant foul on Minnesota. The home crowd lamented over missed and hard fouls.

The Lynx scored 20 points off 15 Los Angeles turnovers, typically a strongsuit of the Sparks. Minnesota also asserted their dominance outscoring the Sparks 44-30 in the paint.

Sparks coach Derek Fisher said there’s a level of physicality when playing the Lynx, but ultimately Minnesota got what they wanted as they continue to climb the WNBA standing ranks.

After the final buzzer rank, crew members in the convention center’s west hall began to disassemble the purple and gold court created solely for the early part of the season.

For the last time before the break, the Sparks played without three starters. Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike (knee) along with Kristi Toliver (eye) sat on the Sparks bench cheering on their teammates.

“It’s not that we assume that we’re just going to magically be better because people are back, but I think we’re excited about the opportunity,” Fisher said.

The Sparks will return August 15 perhaps the most healthy they’ve been all season.

“We’re right there,” Sykes said. “We have our foundation, and now it’s time to build on that foundation and keep going.”

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Sparks can’t close out WNBA-best Aces

  • Sparks guard Brittney Sykes reacts after committing a shot clock violation during the second half of Friday night’s game against the Las Vegas Aces at the L.A. Convention Center. The Aces won, 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage, left, tries to shoot as Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox, left, shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks guard Arella Guirantes, below, and Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum battle for a loose ball during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray, left, drives toward the basket as Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox, left, shoots as Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, top, shoots as Los Angeles Sparks forward Nia Coffey defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Sparks guard Te’a Cooper, left, knocks the ball away from Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray during the first half of Friday night’s game at the L.A. Convention Center. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes, right, shoots as Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, right, shoots as Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Aces won 66-58. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young, left, grabs a rebound away from Los Angeles Sparks forward Lauren Cox during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Los Angeles Raiders owner Mark Davis attends a WNBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Las Vegas Aces Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

  • Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray, right, tries to drive by Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Friday, July 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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The Sparks went toe-to-toe with the WNBA’s hottest team on Friday night, overcoming a 12-point second-half deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead before falling just short.

Reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson had 20 points and 10 rebounds and the league-leading Las Vegas Aces closed on a 12-2 run to beat the Sparks, 66-58, at the L.A. Convention Center.

The Aces (13-4) had defeated the Sparks (6-10) by 20-plus points twice this season, including a 99-75 setback just two nights earlier.

“To see the way the group was fighting on defense, coming back after Wednesday night just says a lot about our players,” Sparks coach/GM Derek Fisher said. “They wanted to come back and have each other’s back tonight.”

Las Vegas had its largest lead at 46-34 in the middle of the third quarter, but the Sparks scored eight straight points in the middle of the fourth to take a 56-54 lead.

Former Spark Chelsea Gray tied it at 56 with a 12-foot jumper and Riquna Williams, another former Spark, made a left corner 3-pointer with 1:53 left, her first basket of the game, to make it 63-58.

Gray finished with 14 points and star center Liz Cambage had 10 to help the Aces remain tied with the Seattle Storm atop the WNBA standings.

Erica Wheeler scored 15 points for the Sparks (6-10), while Amanda Zahui B. had 14 points and 12 rebounds.

The Sparks got stingy on defense, held Vegas well below its scoring average and were able to contain Cambage but Wilson helped close out the game with five free throws down the stretch.

“We want to be disruptive, we want to make our opponent uncomfortable,” Fisher said before the game, and his players responded with five steals and six blocked shots (four by Nia Coffey).

After getting outrebounded by 16 on Wednesday, the Sparks held the Aces to a 34-33 edge on the boards in the rematch.

Fisher said it took a concerted effort by all five positions considering Vegas leads the league in rebounding (38.5 per game) while the Sparks sit at the bottom (29.9).

The arena was perhaps the loudest it has been all season with a sold-out crowd of 959, getting particularly enthusiastic when the Sparks took their fourth-quarter lead.

“We feel that energy so when it does get loud, it does give us an extra boost,” Wheeler said. “We definitely fed off that.”

Veteran guard Kristi Toliver missed her third straight game with an eye injury sustained after getting hit in the face, and the Ogwumike sisters continue to recover from knee issues that have kept them out for several weeks.

To fill the injury gaps, the Sparks signed Lauren Cox on Wednesday after the Indiana Fever waived her earlier this week. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft, she had five points in a career-high 20 minutes in her Sparks debut.

Cox first met her new teammates shortly before Wednesday’s game, then had her first shootaround Friday morning, giving her a chance to get some practice with the team. She helped the Sparks cut the Aces’ points in the paint from 52 on Wednesday to 32 on Friday.

“This team has just been great for me,” she said. “The leadership that this team has and, like I said, just talking me through things, has made things a lot easier.”

Fisher said before the game that they weren’t discouraged after Wednesday’s loss and that they were ready to empty the tank against the same opponent. They’ll hope to put together a similar effort on Sunday when they face Seattle.

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Alexander: Did Sparks get lucky with a second-round pick?

The math is daunting for a young player trying to break into the WNBA. There are 12 teams, a maximum of 12 roster spots on each team, and lots of savvy veterans who don’t give up those spots easily, if at all.

“It’s the hardest professional league to make in terms of the percentage of people that play,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said a few days before Friday’s WNBA draft. “You know, there’s 144 jobs when every team is carrying a full roster. At the beginning of this season, not every team most likely will be even carrying a full roster of 12. A couple will have to have 11 until a certain point of the season, when the salary cap will allow them to fit a 12th.

“It is very, very difficult to make a WNBA roster, even more difficult for a second-round pick or maybe a third-round pick to make it.”

And if it’s tough in general, imagine how tough it will be to crack the Sparks roster, with 11 players with three or more years experience and seven with All-Star credentials: Candace Parker, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Seimone Augustus, Chelsea Gray, Kristi Toliver and Riquna Williams. Especially when all will be there from the start of camp, whenever that happens, with no late arrivals from overseas giving a young player an extra chance to catch the coaching staff’s attention.

So into this lions’ den steps Beatrice Mompremier, a 6-foot-4 forward from the University of Miami who was the 20th player picked Friday night but might be a second-rounder in name only.

“First round talent,” said assistant general manager Michael Fischer, who ran the Sparks’ draft. “She’s 6-5, long arms. … She had an injury, and you could see how important she was for Miami. When she went down the team struggled, and she showed how important to the team she is and how talented she is.”

Mompremier, who finished her college career in her hometown after playing her first two seasons at Baylor, was an honorable mention All-America in each of her two seasons with the Hurricanes. But she missed 13 games as a senior with what was described as an acute foot injury, getting back two games before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. She averaged 16.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 26.1 minutes in her 17 games as a senior, with nine double-doubles. As a junior she averaged 16.7 and 12.2, with 25 double-doubles in 33 games.

She has always been a strong post player offensively but diversified her game the last couple of seasons, handling the ball and improving her shooting range. And she is a force on the glass and as a rim protector.

A survey of 12 WNBA mock drafts leading up to the real thing had Mompremier a first-rounder in every one, anywhere between seventh and 12th. You have to wonder if the same “stay at home” measures that forced the draft itself into a virtual mode also hindered teams in the ability to assess Mompremier’s injury and recovery.

“I felt like after I recovered it was pretty much as if I didn’t even have an injury,” Mompremier said Friday night in a teleconference interview. “I felt great, just a little winded. Other than that I’m good.”

Fischer said he’d talked with Miami assistant coach Octavia Blue, who played for the Houston Comets when he worked in that organization, and he’d seen Mompremier a number of times.

“I was just blown away at how she separates herself from everybody else on the court,” he said. “When I’d see Miami play, by far she was the best talent, the best player on the floor. She is a beast. She’s going to push everybody. She is going to surprise everyone. She is that good.”

Yes, those comments could be interpreted as blowing smoke. After all, it is a draft day tradition: Every executive professes that he or she got exactly what they were looking for.

But those mock drafts …

The Sparks now have a 15-player group when training camp eventually is allowed to take place. Their other second-round choice, 6-foot-4 German wing player Leonie Fiebich, will stay in Europe an extra year. Third-rounder Tynice Martin, a point guard from West Virginia, and undrafted free agent Dominique McBride, a forward from Arizona, will round out the roster.

Let the competition begin, coach Derek Fisher said.

“Often those (young) players are hungry for the opportunity to make it, to prove to themselves they belong, and they raise the level for everybody else,” he said. “We’re looking for talent, of course, but also for the type of players who have the mental makeup to push the group forward. Everybody understands what it means to be in the WNBA. Every situation is not guaranteed.

“That raises the level of accountability for everybody, and as competitors I don’t think you’d want it any other way.”

Mompremier was asked on the conference call when it would register that she’s actually going to be on the same court with all of those veteran stars.

“I think I’ll be more in shock when I’m actually there and I get to see them and meet them and talk to them,” she said. “Just learning from them, that’s when reality will hit.

One questioner asked her to describe her style of play in one word.

“Energy,” she replied.

In an uphill battle – and this training camp almost assuredly will be, so help me Rebecca Lobo – energy is a useful trait.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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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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