Sparks hold off Mercury to hang on to third spot

Chelsea Gray makes two of her 20 points on the night. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Chelsea Gray makes two of her 20 points on the night. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Los Angeles – The Los Angeles Sparks held on to edge the Phoenix Mercury Sunday, 78-75, and keep their lock on third place in league standings.

Chelsea Gray led Los Angeles in scoring for the second straight game, with 24 points. Candace Parker chipped in 14 points, 14 rebounds and eighth assists, and eclipsed the 5,000-point career mark in the process. Brittney Griner scored 22 points for Phoenix, while DeWanna Bonner had 20.

Despite the five-inch height difference between Parker, who is five inches shorter than 6-9 Griner, the Sparks out-rebounded their opponents, 36-30. But Parker said Gray was the difference in the game.

“Chelsea is a tough match up because a lot of teams have to defend her with not their point guard, because she’s not the normal size of a point guard, so for us it’s about exploiting mismatches,” Parker said. “She had it going today, and it was her day, and we’re just trying to find looks and find ways to get her going.”

Alana Beard and Essence Carson both played tight defense on Phoenix’s leading scorer, Diana Taurasi, who averages 21 points per game. After being called for four quick fouls, Taurasi spent most of the first half on the bench.

“Coach mentioned in our last game, it’s not just Taurasi, but Taurasi, Bonner, and Griner,” Beard said. “That’s our focus going into every game. We have a scheme in terms of how we want to play each player, and I felt we did a great job sticking to that game plan. Obviously, Diana is the head of that snake, and she’s always our focus, so getting her rattled helps us.”

With Taurasi out of the picture, Los Angeles went on an eight-point run early in the second quarter to give them a 26-16 lead. But even when Taurasi back in the game, the hosts clocked in another run and added nine more points to the board.

“I should get used to these calls, it’s the same thing every year,” Taurasi said of her foul trouble.

Candace Parker looks for the pass. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Candace Parker looks for the pass. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

As fouls were called left and right, Parker stepped up to the line to shoot her free throws at 6:12 in the second quarter. She missed the first, and when she made the second, the crowd erupted into an ovation for her scoring milestone.

“I had no idea it was close,” Parker said. “I missed the free throw before so when I hit it I was like, are the fans being sarcastic because I missed the last free throw? Then I realized they were cheering because of the milestone.”

“I just really appreciate all the fans that have stuck with me, my teammates, my coaches, my doctors that have gotten me to this point because nothing is promised and I’m really going to be happy in this moment.”

Although Taurasi had been left scoreless for the entire first half and almost the whole third quarter, her fire was ignited as she added a layup and three-pointer to the scoreboard with only a few minutes left in the period.

A Briann January three-pointer with 8:29 left brought the Mercury to within one point. The Sparks answered quickly with a three-pointer from Gray. Phoenix trailed the rest of the game and Taurasi fouled out at the 2:40 mark.

Los Angeles was up 78-75 with 12 seconds on the clock, but Bonner missed the three-point shot that would have tied the score and sent the game into overtime. Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said the loss of Taurasi for much of the game hurt the team.

“It’s unfortunate. They were questionable fouls. When you take one of your best players out of the game, it makes it hard to win,” Brondello said. “Credit to the girls: I thought they fought hard, and we were close. Chelsea (Gray) made some really big plays, and their defense was pretty solid. They made a great play at the end. They shot more open shots and made them.”

The Sparks began the season 9-2 and stumbled last month, dropping five straight games at home and falling to as far as fifth in the standings. They hit the road now for a week-long trip, where every play counts.

“Any win this time of year is important and big and against the team you are competing with for a playoff spot,” Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. “There are going to be a lot of playoff-type atmosphere games from here on out.”

“We’re two weeks from the season ending. Everybody has five or six games left. Every game is going to be of the utmost importance in terms of the implications it has for the playoff pictures, so we’ve got to take it and look at it like we’re in the playoffs now. You can’t come out not ready to play this time of year.”