Los Angeles – The Sparks began their 2017 WNBA season Saturday, defeating the Seattle Storm in what can be best described as an unorthodox home opener for the defending champs.
They raised the 2016 Championship banner and displayed the trophy, but absent was the customary ring ceremony, along with three of the veterans that helped them win the title: Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson. All are finishing league play in Turkey, and aren’t due back until the middle of next week.
Even so, reigning league MVP Nneka Ogwumike and the rest of the Sparks took care of business and beat the visitors, 78-68. Ogwumike led Los Angeles with 23 points; Odyssey Sims added 20 points and six assists; and Chelsea Gray put up 14 points and dished eight assists of her own.
The Storm were also missing pieces: reigning rookie of the year Breanna Stewart and veteran point guard Sue Bird, who are both day-to-day with knee injuries.
Seattle out-shot their hosts the entire game, and won the blocked shots battle, 7-0. The Sparks forced their opponents into 23 turnovers. Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said his plan was to run simple offense for lack of personnel, but that didn’t go as planned in the first half of play.
“I thought we settled early, for a lot of jump shots,” he said. “I thought we had other times where we could have had people taking it to the rim. We wanted to really be aggressive and try to get to the free throw line much more, but obviously, it didn’t play out that way.”
Ogwumike got things going early for the shorthanded Sparks, draining a three-point basket mere seconds into the contest. That started a back-and-forth scoring battle with Seattle, as Jewell Loyd scored on a running layup. She finished with 25 points.
Neither team could create separation, with each benefiting from sets of scoring runs. As the third quarter came to a close the lead had switched hands eight times and had been tied six times. Neither team had lead by more than six points.
In the final period, Los Angeles inflated their lead to 10 when the Storm attempted a final comeback, narrowing the deficit to three as Crystal Langhorne completed a three-point play from the free throw line. An immediate answer from Gray stopped the Seattle run and gave the Sparks the momentum to close out the win.
Ramu Tokashiki added 14 for the Storm and Langhorne put up 13 points.
Agler credited the win to Ogwumike’s leadership, both on and off the floor.
“I know leadership is something you guys can’t see because it’s behind the scenes,” he said. “The little things and they all lead by example. Nneka’s effort out on the floor was unbelievable and she sets the tone in hard we are going to play.”
Ogwumike said she knows games like Saturday’s are going to happen as the team looks to acclimate new players into the system.
“I think our team thrives in challenging situations and obstacles,” she said. “When you see not so many people coming back so many new faces, we do not see it as a setback we see it as our responsibility and opportunity.”
Storm coach Jenny Boucek said her team did a good job compensating for player absences.
“It’s a tough first game for us without Sue and Stewie because they put so much pressure on (opponents),” she said. “Considering that, we found a way to hang around for most of the game, and I really was pleased with the way our team competed and the way they kept their composure despite a lot of pressure and playing outside their normal roles.”
“I thought we made them work for the things that they got. A lot of our offense, we haven’t really worked on yet because of the absence of Sue and Stewie. We’ll clean it up.”
Loyd also saw positives in the loss.
“The biggest takeaway for us is that we stayed in rhythm,” she said.
While the Storm headed home after the game to play their own home opener Sunday, the Sparks will not see the floor again until Friday, when they host the Mystics. And it might all work out that the ring ceremony was delayed, as Sparks Championship team squad member Kristi Toliver, who signed with Washington over the winter, will be in the house.
Sue Favor contributed to this report