Los Angeles, Calif. – The Los Angeles Sparks held off the Indiana Fever Sunday, 88-81, to notch their third consecutive win and match the Minnesota Lynx for a league-best 24-5 record.
Nneka Ogwumike had 21 points for the Sparks, Candace Parker put up 19 and Kristi Toliver added 18. Erica Wheeler lead the visitors with 20 points, while Shenise Johnson scored 19 and Tamika Catchings, in her final appearance at Staples Center, had 16.
Los Angeles began the game on a tear, outscoring Indiana 14-4 in the final 3:11 to lead 31-19 at the end of the first quarter. A combined effort by the Fever closed the gap to 46-41 at halftime.
The third period was all Sparks, as they mounted a 72-54 lead at the break. The Fever kept chipping away at that lead in the fourth quarter, and a Johnson three-point shot with 10 seconds remaining trimmed the Los Angeles lead to six. But Indiana couldn’t close out.
The game marked the third and final match up between the two teams. The Fever won the last round, before the Olympic break, and are the only team the Sparks have allowed to score 80 points more than once this year.
“We did a good job of keeping them from getting what they wanted on defense,” Ogwumike said of the Sparks’ performance. “They’re really aggressive, and coach (Brian Agler) did an awesome job of preparing us for how they were going to come from the help side. At the end they tried doing that, but we maintained our poise.”
Indiana coach Stephanie White said her team faltered a bit down the stretch.
“We had a lot of mental breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor,” White said. “We didn’t get much on the offensive side. The Sparks did a good job of being aggressive. I was proud of my team for fighting and sticking with the game plan. You can’t have those types of breakdowns against great teams in this league.”
League-leading Los Angeles lost two of their last three games before the Olympic break, including one to the Fever. They dropped their first two contests coming back from the break, but the win over Indiana is their third in a row.
“We’re getting there,” Ogwumike said. “The first (win) over San Antonio was good and the second over Dallas was better. We’re getting back.”
The Sparks and Lynx are each trying to secure a top seed in the playoffs. Under the new format teams are rated by record and not conference. The top seed gets a bye in the first round of play.
Leading the charge is Ogwumike, who averages a team-best 19.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game to rank third overall in the WNBA in both categories. Shooting free throws in the game’s final seconds Sunday, the fifth-year forward was serenaded by “MVP!” chants from fans, as she is a leading candidate for the league’s best award.
Ogwumike said padding her stats isn’t on her mind when she takes the floor.
“I don’t focus on scoring, I focus on what I have to do to get the offense going: screening, rebounding, running,” she said. “The ball will find me.”
Agler said Ogwumike deserves the MVP nod.
“She’s the hungriest, and she does her role better than any other player does their role in the league,” he said. “She is also a defensive stopper, and I don’t know about anybody else in the (MVP) category that is being talked about like that, and Nneka is exactly that, a defensive stopper.”
Ogwumike laughed when asked about the “MVP” chants.
“I thought it was kind of cool,” she said. “It would be awesome if it happened, but it’s OK if it doesn’t. I’d rather have the ring.”
The Sparks and Lynx will face off for the third and final time this season on Tuesday at Staples Center. In the first match up, in Los Angeles, Minnesota won on a last-second shot. The second game a few days later saw the Sparks rout their opponents.
This week’s game will not only decide the series winner, but will determine the top dog in the league. The game is at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.