Los Angeles, Calif. – Friday was the first time Minnesota had been to Staples Center since last October, when they beat the Sparks for the Western Conference title.
Like last fall, the West’s best-record teams were expected to match up well. But this time, the Sparks came out thundering and never let up, pounding their opponents, 87-59. Los Angeles never trailed, and lead by as much as 34 points in the third quarter.
Kristi Toliver lead four Sparks in double figures, with 19 points, in a game where Los Angeles lead in every statistical category except turnovers and blocked shots. Monica Wright headed Minnesota’s effort with 14 points, and fellow bench player Sugar Rodgers added 10.
Sparks coach Carol Ross has stated that she’s been looking for a 40-minute game from her team. She got it against the Lynx.
“It was outstanding – especially the first half,” Ross said. “I really thought we came out with really great intensity and focus. We really couldn’t have played better defensively and the offensive execution, just really super. Then I thought the beginning of the third quarter was really the nail in the coffin.”
Though Los Angeles was tough offensively, it was their suffocating defense that took the Lynx out of their rhythm – something Ross acknowledged.
“When you play defense the way we play, it’s going to take good teams out of a lot of games and certainly moving the ball is difficult for them, so I thought we really disrupted their offensive flow,” Ross said. “I thought we were tough and we were hungry to get to the boards. I thought that was really the key.”
The Sparks had last year’s playoffs in mind, but more immediately, this season. Last week they responded to a disappointing loss in Phoenix by crushing San Antonio the following night. Ross said at the time that she would have to see if their play was a turnaround, or a temporary solution. Friday, it seemed to be the former.
“Tonight was a defining moment in that we wanted to continue that progression and not have any steps back,” said Nneka Ogwumike, who put up 18 points. “We played like how we’ve been practicing, which is what was so disappointing in the Phoenix game. We practiced harder against ourselves than we played in the second half of that Phoenix game.”
Ogwumike said team chemistry is clicking right now.
“I think we’ve taken a lot of steps forward,” she said. “It’s still early – we’ve only played six games. But it’s good to see that we’re understanding our identity early on, because last year it took a while.”
The Sparks took a 50-24 lead into halftime. Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen scored the first two points of the second period, but then Los Angeles went on a 10-0 run. At 1:38, coach Cheryl Reeve took out the starters and put in her reserves. Only Janel McCarville saw the floor again, for 3:18 in the fourth quarter.
“(At the half) we talked about how we were going go to out there and approach it, and in the first minute and a half, they scored 10 points. So that was the point where you think, we aren’t going to win the game,” Reeve said. “Our goal at halftime was to come out and chip away, five minutes at a time, and with five minutes to go, see where we’re at. It was clear that wasn’t going to happen after a minute and a half.”
“I really appreciate what the second team did. After a minute and a half (the Sparks) had scored 10 points, but then they only had nine the rest of the way.”
Reeve acknowledged the Sparks’ performance.
“Give LA credit – they’re understanding who they want to be identity-wise, their ball pressure was terrific, they played off their defense, and they run their offense well,” she said.
Even so, the firepower of their opponents took them off guard.
“To say that we’re surprised about what we got here today is an understatement. We were coming here for a great basketball game, and a blowout broke out,” Reeve said.
The two teams will face each other twice more again over the next ten days – once in Minnesota and once in Los Angeles.