Los Angeles, Calif. – It was hard to tell what the bigger story line was Tuesday night.
The Phoenix Mercury were out to collect a win that would earn them the last remaining WNBA 2016 playoff berth. The Los Angeles Sparks were trying to snap a three-game losing streak that threatened to interrupt their playoff momentum.
Thanks to a second half push by the Sparks that was reminiscent of their pre-Olympic break play, they powered past the Mercury, 90-85.
Nneka Ogwumike earned her 20th double-double of the season for Los Angeles with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Chelsea Gray came off the bench to score a career-high 23 points – her fourth consecutive double-digit showing. Jantel Lavender also stepped off the bench for 17 points.
Facing a 39-47 halftime deficit, Gray and Lavender took over in the second half, igniting a 15-8 Sparks run which brought them to within four points by the end of the period. Phoenix had opportunities to take back the game in fourth, including tying the game at 77 with 3:29 left to play. But Gray hit on a three-point jump shot on the next Los Angeles possession that proved to be the dagger.
Ogwumike said the team made halftime adjustments after a slow end to the first two periods.
“We came out and focused on the adjustments we did make,” she said. “They were playing as hard as they could, and we did a good job of matching them.”
DeWanna Bonner lead the Mercury with 20 points off the bench, while Brittney Griner had 19 points and 16 rebounds. Phoenix is still in contention with the Washington Mystics for the final playoff spot.
Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said the Sparks bench was the difference in the game.
“I thought we played well for the most part,” Brondello said. “But, you know Chelsea Gray had a fantastic game and Jantel, so their bench really hurt us. We just had a few breakdowns, we didn’t protect the paint as well as we should have in that second half.”
For Los Angeles, the game was a breakthrough because they showed signs in the second half of the undefeated team they were at the beginning of the season. Players agreed the win was good for momentum.
“Having that type of focus heading into the playoffs is huge for us,” Lavender said. “Our chemistry is the best since I’ve been here. It was a good showing tonight and we have to continue that.”
Ogwumike was clapping on court during the fourth quarter, urging her teammates on, similar to what she used to do as the captain at Stanford University. The MVP candidate said she has been trying to be a leader on court.
“I think it’s something we’re all trying to do, but I’ve taken it upon myself as something I need to take more responsibility for,” Ogwumike said. “Holding people accountable, but letting people know we can have fun out there. There’s a certain level that you have to progress to towards this stage of the season, and that’s what my role is.”
Brondello said Phoenix is determined to get the last playoff berth.
“We just have got to be ready to play defense, that’s what it comes down to,” she said. “Make sure that we’re playing the way we know we can but playing as a team, trusting each other and hopefully we’ll get to clinch there.”
The Sparks play San Antonio Friday at home.
Sue Favor co-authored this report.