Los Angeles – For a while in the second half of Thursday’s match up between the defending Champion Los Angeles Sparks and upstart San Antonio Stars, it looked like the visitors would topple Goliath for their first season win. But Chelsea Gray’s clutch play in the game’s final minute paced the Sparks to the 80-75 escape win.
Gray made a layup with 50 seconds to go, and then five free throw shots to finish with 19 points on the night. Candace Parker scored 20 points and Nneka Ogwumike added 16 for Los Angeles.
“We were two different teams from the first half to the second,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “I will say that I commend San Antonio on how they played in the second half. There would have been a lot of reason for them to shut it down trailing by 20 halftime, but they didn’t—they regrouped, competed hard, executed and put us ‘on our heels.'”
The hosts got out to a quick start, shooting 66.7 percent behind Parker’s nine points. They led 25-11 at the end of the first quarter, and continued their assault in the second, padding their lead to 46-26 at the break.
The Stars opened the third quarter on an aggressive tact on both ends of the floor. Moriah Jefferson, who finished with 24 points for San Antonio, scored on three straight possessions during the period to fuel her team’s 20-2 run and cut the Los Angeles lead to 50-48 at the 1:51 mark. They outscored the Sparks 24-12 in the frame on 62.5 percent shooting.
The fourth quarter saw the Stars continue to battle, with Jefferson scoring 10 points and Isabelle Harrison nine of her career-high 22 on the night. They cut the Los Angeles lead to 70-67 at 1:59 to go, but Parker’s layup and Gray’s free throws gave the Sparks enough to pull out the win. San Antonio is now 0-10.
For Los Angeles, the showing continued a theme of slow third quarters that they’ve played the last several years.
Agler characterized his team as slower and stagnant in the second half of play. But he was at a loss in how to explain the tendency.
“I don’t have the answer for why we were flat,” he told media members. “Some of you guys have been watching this team a lot longer, and perhaps more personally, than I have. I think for whatever reason that’s just a trend that this group has.”
“We talk about it in practice and we talked about it at half-time and I wish I had the answer—I would probably be a millionaire if I did but I don’t. We just have to keep addressing it, figure out what keeps putting us in that state and eliminate it from happening.”
San Antonio coach Vickie Johnson said she didn’t say anything special to her team at halftime.
“We have a very young team. I didn’t beat them or go at them. I encouraged more than anything,” Johnson said. “I just told them to play together, play with confidence on both sides of the ball, most important thing.”
Players took it to heart.
“We changed our mental focus,” Jefferson said. “On the defensive end, everybody was aggressive, talking, getting active. When you start out like that you give yourself a chance. If we’d started off that way the game could have been a lot different.”
Jefferson said the Stars haven’t been able to sustain intensity for an entire game yet this year.
“If you watched our season, it’s always been 10 minutes (of consistent play) here and 10 minutes there, but never all there,” she said. “It was tough for us not having everyone in camp to get to know each other, but we’ve got to be professional. A lot of teams didn’t have everyone in camp. I think the chemistry is coming, and that’s about playing aggressively and staying focused for 40 minutes.”
The Sparks, who are now tied for second in league standings after the win, have struggled more than expected with a longtime player core in place. San Antonio has a revamped roster and had little time to develop team chemistry with late overseas returnees and injuries to begin the season. But Harrison said the game against Los Angeles has given them a push.
“It gives us a confidence boost in what we can do,” she said. “If we can come close to beating a championship team, we will take that into our next game.”
Los Angeles next hosts the Phoenix Mercury, whom they beat by two points last week. The Stars travel to Seattle to take on the Storm. Both games are Sunday.