Los Angeles, Calif. – The Los Angeles Sparks heated up the Western Conference race Friday night with a 94-72 win over the Indiana Fever. The victory puts them less than a half game behind the Minnesota Lynx, who lost their third straight game a few hours earlier.
Kristi Toliver lead the Sparks with 28 points, including 16 in the first quarter. Candace Parker added 18 points and Nneka Ogwumike, 16. Tamika Catchings and Erin Phillips each put up 16 points for the Fever, and Briann January snagged 15.
Toliver paced the Sparks to a 28-17 first quarter lead, which held through halftime. Back-to-back Catchings jump shots midway through the third quarter cut Indiana’s deficit to seven points, but buckets by Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Marissa Coleman bumped the Los Angeles lead back up to 16 by the break. In the fourth period it was all Sparks, who used bench players to bury the visitors.
Sparks point guard Lindsey Harding credited Toliver for getting the team off to a fast start.
“She was hitting like crazy,” Harding said. “You have one player in the first quarter score 16 points, and that’s really tough for any team to beat. I think we fed off of that, got a lot of points in the paint and got contributions from everywhere.”
Toliver said the team was mindful of the importance of coming out strong.
“When you’re playing such a good defensive team, it’s very important to get a good start,” Toliver said. “We wanted to win every quarter. Offensively (tonight) we looked pretty good. We were playing at the pace and the tempo that we wanted to play at and that’s hard to guard for anybody.”
The Fever have been depleted by a string of injuries effecting multiple players. They began the season 1-7 before mounting a comeback to be a current contender for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Indiana was missing three players in Friday’s game, and midway through, center Karima Christmas went down with a left hip injury, and didn’t return to action. Her status is not yet known.
Catchings said they played hard for the entirety of the game, but missed shots against a solid team.
“They battled hard, and we knew they would,” she said. “Their transition….it’s an incredible match up. We’ll get better, we got better tonight. We played a lot better than we did against Phoenix (Wednesday), and we play Seattle tomorrow.”
Fever coach Lin Dunn said her team missed a lot of shots. She thinks the injuries have taken a toll on the entire team at this point in the season.
“One of the things that’s affecting us right now is the number of games we had to play with eight people,” Dunn said. “We had people playing 35, 36 minutes (earlier in the year) because that’s all we had. I think it’s starting to take a bit of a toll on us – we need some rest.”
But Dunn gave credit to Los Angeles, which she called “by far the best” team in the WNBA right now.
“I don’t think there’s any question that LA is the team to beat right now,” Dunn said. “Can they maintain that through the playoffs? We’ll see.”
Dunn said the Sparks’ transition game was exceptional.
“Another good thing about them is their depth – they’re so deep,” she said. “When they sub I’m particularly impressed with Lavender and how well she’s playing. They’ve got a rotation of Parker, Ogwumike and Lavender that I think is the best in the league. A lot of teams have one or two posts, but those three, and how they can be interchangeable, is really really good for them.
The Sparks couldn’t win on the road this season until mid-July, but they finished their recent East cost road trip 4-1. Friday’s win was their sixth straight, but Parker is reluctant to say the team has got over a hump.
“There’s always things you can get better at, and you have to continue to do that,” Parker said. “These games I don’t feel like there’s a lot of adjustments in scouting when you go into it, because you play so many games in a small amount of time.”
“Do you really know the player your guarding – tendencies and all that? But I just know from last year’s playoffs: we were scouted for everything. You know your players – what they like to wear to the game. I don’t want to be a scoutable team. We have to continue to do things and get better.”
Catchings said the Fever has been continuously rebuilding with each injury this year.
“We have to,” she said. “We’re in a much different situation than we were last year, and all season it’s been one thing after another – one person in, one person out. You’ve got to roll with the punches, and we’ve done a heck of a job this year rolling with them. We put ourselves in a position to possibly make the playoffs, and we’re going to just keep fighting hard.”
Indiana won the WNBA Championship last year despite injuries to key players. Dunn said that experience, plus their work ethic, defines them as a team.
“We just play hard,” Dunn said. “When you’ve got somebody on your team like Tamika Catchings…..you’re going to compete at a high level. That’s her mentality. We also have a lot of players who have that mentality – that blue collar (ethic) – we’re going to play as hard as we can play and do whatever we can do.”
“And that’s why we’re scrambling right now to try and get into the playoffs. Maybe by the time the playoffs come in we can steal that third or fourth spot…you just never know. But we learned to play with adversity in the playoffs (last season), and we know how to do that. We’re always going to compete – that’s who we are.”