Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sparks bring the heat to Conneticut, extend winning streak to six

Nneka Ogwumike has scored 20 or more points nine times this season, including Tuesday against the Sun. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Nneka Ogwumike has scored 20 or more points nine times this season, including Tuesday against the Sun. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Nneka Ogwumike has scored 20 or more points nine times this season, including Tuesday against the Sun. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.

Uncasville, Conn. – In a match-up between the Los Angeles Sparks and Connecticut Sun, it was the Sparks who brought the proverbial heat Tuesday, taking care of the hosts, 87-79, and extending their winning streak to six.

Reigning MVP Nneka Ogwumike once again led all scorers with 21 points and nine rebounds, marking the ninth time this season she has eclipsed the 20-point threshold. She was also one of five Sparks players to finish in double figures: a testament to just how potent their offense can be.

“It felt like a normal night. I think we did a really good job of getting what we wanted on the offensive end, so I try my best to finish as best I could,” Ogwumike said.

Los Angeles began the game strong – especially Ogwumike, who shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the field while pacing them to a ten-point advantage following one quarter of play. They stretched their lead out to 13, which gave them a cushion when Connecticut narrowed the margin back down to six as the opening half came to close.

But as in their last game, the Sparks had a strong third quarter, opening with a 16-5 run. They built their lead to as much as 19.

“I thought we played pretty consistent tonight. I think our defense is getting better,” Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. “When we get stagnant, we quit scoring, so we have to keep the ball moving and keep our people moving and when we do that we execute well. We are moving in the right direction.”

Despite a 10-3 record, Sparks forward Candace Parker was hesitant to talk potential, saying there is still a lot of season left to play.

“I think we are still far away from where we can be, which is great for us,” said Parker, who scored 14 points on the night. “I think we are still working on controlling the game, knowing situations and getting stops when we need to, which includes blocking out. I love where we are headed. If we were as good as we were going to be right now I would be a little worried.”

Jasmine Thomas led the Sun with 19 points, while Courtney Williams added 14. Jonquel Jones had 13 points and 17 rebounds, and Alyssa Thomas had 13 points and 11 rebounds. This was Connecticut’s second consecutive loss following a five-game winning streak.

Even though they were able to narrow the early deficit, Sun coach Curt Miller attributed the loss to the rough opening quarter.

“I thought tonight, coming into the game, a big part of the game was going to be to grind and just stay in the game,” he said. “We talked as a staff about how important this first quarter was going to be for confidence, but also for a little momentum. To feel good about playing against them. We had a difficult first quarter, but I appreciated that that they kept grinding. We got it to seven at one point in the fourth quarter, did some good things throughout the game, but just felt like we were always climbing uphill after that first quarter.”

“The other thing is too many points given up on live ball turnovers. Between turnovers, them getting out and running on turnovers, and a lot of missed shots in the paint, we just played too much in transition against that high-powered offense.”

Jones echoed Miller’s sentiments, saying the team needs to do a better job in the beginning of each quarter.

“(We need to) be prepared to finish,” she said. “(We need to work on) a lot of stuff – staring quarters well. There’s a lot of stuff to learn from and a lot of work to do. First quarter is definitely something that I can get better at personally.”

The Sparks will now look to make it seven in a row when they visit the Atlanta Dream on Friday, while the Sun host the Seattle Storm on Thursday.

News roll

Today’s game results:

The Mystics eased by the Storm, 100-70. And what happened to the Storm, after such a great start to the season?

The Sparks overwhelmed the Sun, 87-79.

WNBA team news:

The Mystics aim to maintain consistency as they finally approach full strength.

This week’s power rankings.

WNBA player news:

Tiffany Mitchell uses “heart and hustle” work ethic to succeed.

Ask Tina Charles, round four.

From All-American to activist, Breanna Stewart embraces speaking out on issues.

50 Cent is hyping Imani Boyette for the All-Star Game.

Kristi Toliver is finding her rhythm with the Mystics.

Skylar Diggins-Smith is the AP player of the week.

Tomorrow’s game schedule:

The Fever is looking for a repeat win over the Sky.

NCAA news:

A record 543 student-athletes were nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. Women’s basketball is one of the top five sports with nominees.

College team news:

The Lady Vols should be fine without Diamond DeShields.

Dawn Staley and South Carolina jumped on the opportunity to play in Japan.

UConn’s freshmen are already learning the UConn way.

College player news:

After a long wait, Azura Stevens is ready to go for Connecticut.

Kia Nurse is relishing her leadership role with UConn.

Tennessee transfer Alexa Middleton has landed at Iowa State.

Alexis Brewer has transferred from West Virginia to Western Kentucky.

Former Syracuse forward Julia Chandler has transferred to Dayton.

Florida Atlantic has two transfers, including one from Rutgers.

College coach news:

Can Holly Warlick turn the Lady Vols’ losses into pluses?

Nevada’s Tahnee Robinson continues to change the game of basketball.

Brittany Pinkey has returned to Bucknell as an assistant coach.

WBCA news:

The WBCA has new members on its board of directors.

ESPN:

Here’s what ESPN pays for its sports rights.

Mystics reduce the Storm to a drizzle

Kristi Toliver has had double-digit scoring for three consecutive games. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
Kristi Toliver has had double-digit scoring for three consecutive games. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
Kristi Toliver has had double-digit scoring for three consecutive games. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Washington, D.C. –  The noise was positively deafening as the Washington Mystics faced the Seattle Storm on camp day in the nation’s Capital Tuesday. And in the end, Washington was absolutely dominating, as they ran over Seattle, 100-70.

Elena Delle Donne led the way for the Mystics, scoring 25 points on 10 field goals in just under 25 minutes of action. Kristi Toliver scored 15 points – her third consecutive double-digit outing; Tayler Hill had 14 points and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Toliver’s performance was an especially bright spot for Washington. In the offseason, coach Mike Thibault sought her out in hopes that her championship experience and prolific scoring ability would help propel his team to the top of the league, and she seems to have found her stride over the last few games.

Toliver shot 50 percent from the field in the Storm match up, going 3-8 from long range.

“I’m just taking things in as they come,” Toliver said. “I don’t want to force anything. I’m just getting a little more comfortable within the system and learning my teammates. I’m certainly not there yet, I think I could be much better, but you can definitely see that we’re progressing.”

A constant concern for the Mystics this season has been their ability to sustain a lead at the start of the second half. Against Seattle, Washington kept their lead intact, and even built on it further after pulling ahead, 56-31 at halftime, which is cause to believe they are heading in the right direction.

“We’re playing a very tough stretch of games against the top teams in the league, so consistency is going to be key,” center Krystal Thomas said. “That’s definitely something we talk about, we know when we go back out there it’s zero to zero.”

“We have to keep playing and fighting because in this league, these teams are too good. If you come out for one second and you relax and that’s when a 25-point lead turns into 15, and now you’ve got a game. It was all about coming out, keeping our foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and competing.”

Thibault was pleasantly surprised at how well his team performed during the second half.

“I didn’t really envision being able to sit down the whole fourth quarter when I got here today,” he said. “Today I thought we sustained (consistent energy) for a long period of time. I was a little worried at the start of the third quarter, we’ve had a couple flat starts lately when we’ve had big leads. The first couple minutes I was wondering, but we got going again and that was the only real low point in the game. That’s what we’ve been harping on, you’ve got to have a consistency throughout the game.”

Crystal Langhorne had 15 points for the Storm, and Breanna Stewart and Ramu Tokashiki each added 11. Jewell Loyd, who has established herself as a capable offensive talent, was limited to only four points.

Seattle turned the ball over 23 times, resulting in 31 Mystics points. Coach Jenny Boucek said her team simply got outmatched.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” she said. “We missed shots we normally make early, and they caught fire, and once you give a good offensive team like this that much momentum, it’s tough to stop them.”

Washington is back at home Thursday to face the fourth-place New York Liberty. They now sit at third place in the league standings, riding a two-game winning streak.

Dallas Wings defeat Sun to win fourth straight

Skylar Diggins-Smith scored in double digits for the third straight game Sunday in the Wings' win. AP photo by Tony Gutierrez.
Skylar Diggins-Smith scored in double digits for the third straight game Sunday in the Wings’ win. AP photo by Tony Gutierrez.

Arlington, Texas – All five starters for the Dallas Wings scored in double figures to defeat a hot Connecticut Sun team Sunday, 96-82. It was the fourth straight victory for Dallas, and the loss snapped Connecticut’s five-game winning streak.

Karima Christmas-Kelly led the Wings with 24 points, while Theresa Plaisance added 15 and Glory Johnson and Skylar Diggins-Smith each had 15.

The Wings frustrated Sun early with their defense, limiting the touches of Jasmine Thomas, in particular, who finished with only six points. Christmas-Kelly said they knew they had to come out strong on the defensive end, and they fed off of each other’s energy.

“Once we got going defensively, we started seeing a lot more openings and just getting it to the right players at the right time,” Christmas-Kelly said.

Alyssa Thomas led the Sun with 19 points and five assists. Connecticut had been riding high behind the emergence of center Jonquel Jones this season, who has been averaging a double-double. But Dallas made her work for each of her 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Courtney Williams also had 14 and Shekinna Stricklen added 13 for the visitors. Williams said that it was a rough game where the Wings were able to capitalize on their turnovers.

“They’re a great team, they knew were hot from the three point line so they didn’t get off our shooters at all,” Williams said. “We just have to bounce back.”

Dallas was without their coach Fred Williams, who was ill. Sun Head Coach Curt Miller said the Wings were the aggressor and played inspired tonight with Williams out.

“Through this stretch of wins, we’ve been the aggressor, and you worry about that with Dallas, because they play downhill,” Miller said. “The aggressive team won tonight and they earned their calls.”

Assistant coach Bridget Pettis filled in as coach, and she said post-game that this is the time of the season where you start to see teams gel a little more.

“They (the Wings) already got the concept of what we are trying to do and Skylar is the one who leads it,” Pettis said.

Diggins-Smith has been in command of this young team, getting the ball to key players in the right places. She had nine assists against Connecticut. The team is still missing dynamic guard Aerial Powers, recovering from hip surgery, and center Courtney Paris rehabbing a knee injury.

Diggins-Smith said she was happy everyone stepped up.

“Four in a row is great for us,” she said. “We got three more games at home, but we just want to take care of it one by one.”

Dallas will get a much-needed break, as they have played three more games that any other team at this point of the season. The Wings will host the Seattle Storm Saturday night.

Ogwumike, Parker lead Sparks past Fever on Catchings’ jersey night

Tamika Catchings and father Harvey Catchings raise the No. 24 banner into the rafters at Bankerslife Fieldhouse. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Tamika Catchings and father Harvey Catchings raise the No. 24 banner into the rafters at Bankerslife Fieldhouse. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Tamika Catchings and father Harvey Catchings raise the No. 24 banner into the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.

Indianapolis – In a night that was supposed to be all about the Fever and honoring one of the best to play the game, the Sparks utilized a huge second-half run to thwart Indiana’s special night, 84-73.

Nneka Ogwumike led all Sparks scorers with 21 points, while Candace Parker posted 18 points and 13 rebounds. Chelsea Gray also had 17 points for the visitors.

The Fever retired Tamika Catchings’ jersey in an extended halftime ceremony.

Los Angeles was able to overcome Indiana’s hot first quarter by rallying from an 18-point deficit to pull within three by the end of the period. They led their hosts by six points at halftime.

The Sparks began the third quarter on a 19-0 run, which gave them a 25-point lead. The Fever then reeled off 12 unanswered points, but Ogwumike and Parker stepped up play in the fourth quarter, especially, to bury Indiana and even the season series.

Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said the team’s plan for the second half was to clean things up, both offensively and defensively.

“We talked about that coming into halftime,” he said. “We needed to get a good start in the second half, because that’s been a problem for us. We came out sharp defensively, and hit some shots.”

“We didn’t really make any changes. We talked about what hurt us early, and tried to clean that up. We were just on task.”

Ogwumike emphasized that being in a similar position their last time in Indiana helped ensure a victory this time around.

“We knew we had to focus,” she said. “I thought we did a good job of coming out and staying controlled. They came out pretty hard in the first half. We were able to stay in the game. Third quarter, we really wanted focus on continuing on with our efforts. Then we had a lull after we made a run, but we were able to control the tempo of the game.”

Nneka Ogwumike shoots over Natalie Achonwa. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Nneka Ogwumike shoots over Natalie Achonwa. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.

The loss ended a modest two-game winning streak for the Fever. Coach Pokey Chatman said that the potency of the Sparks offense requires a near-perfect defense.

“They are the best offensive team in the league,” Chatman said. “You have to give them some credit. We obviously couldn’t find stops when we needed them in the third quarter, and we needed to play better defense. I just didn’t think we played like we are capable of playing.”

“I’m going to guess we contested about 60 percent of LA’s shots. But if you don’t contest about 85 percent of the Sparks’ shots, they’re going to punish you. They’re good. You can’t beat them without making them uncomfortable in what they do.”

Candice Dupree led the Fever charge with 14 points, while Shenise Johnson and Briann January each added 13 and Erica Wheeler, 12.

A halftime show worth Catch-ing

The Indiana Fever honored Catchings, who is the most storied player of the franchise, by retiring her No. 24 jersey and hoisting the banner into the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Catchings played her entire 15-year career at Indiana. She won the regular-season MVP award in 2011, and the next year willed the Fever to the WNBA Championship. She was named Finals MVP.

In the ceremony, Catchings was honored by the Fever President and the President of the Indiana Pacers. She addressed the crowd in between bouts of tears, and told them they were the reason she stayed. She and her family raised the banner together.

What retirement? Alana Beard burning up the court in her 12th season

Alana Beard runs the fast break. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Alana Beard runs the fast break. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Alana Beard runs the fast break. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.

In the Los Angeles Sparks’ first game of the season, Alana Beard dove to the floor to poke the ball away from her opponent and feed it to teammate Odyssey Sims, who scored. Last week Beard jumped into the passing lane to slap the ball from its intended target.

The 12th-year guard looks like an early candidate for all-defensive team, which she has made three of the last five years since she returned to the court in the WNBA. She is averaging a team-high 2.1 steals per game, is the fourth-leading scorer for Los Angeles, and at 35 years of age – the oldest on the team – she is logging the most playing time at just over 32 minutes per outing. As if that weren’t enough, Beard is tops in field goal percentage for the Sparks, shooting 60.3 percent.

But it was just last October that the age-defying former Duke Blue Devil standout was contemplating retirement. Los Angeles coach Brian Agler mentioned it on stage at the team’s WNBA Championship celebration, and the crowd groaned. He promised he’d try to get her to stay.

True to his word, Agler disclosed on Twitter three months later that Beard had decided not to retire just now. In April, she re-signed with the Sparks. Beard said the idea was blown out of proportion.

“Brian and I had conversations, and he knew I was thinking that if we won a Championship, I’d go out on top,” she said. “But nothing was set in stone!”

Agler was in Washington D.C., where Beard lives in the offseason, and they had dinner. He convinced her to return to the team, and she said the next thing she knew he was dropping the news on social media.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Beard, who admitted she is not one to make public announcements. “If I want to stop playing, I’ll just leave,” she said. “It’s not for anyone to know.”

But Beard said she isn’t necessarily hanging up her shoes anytime soon.

“When the time comes to retire, I will decide,” she said.

Alana Beard cheers from the bench as the Sparks went past the 100-point mark. Photo by Bret Hartman/AP.
Alana Beard cheers from the bench during the 2012 season as the Sparks went past the 100-point mark. Photo by Bret Hartman/AP.

If Beard had opted to leave basketball, no one could begrudge her.

She is possibly the best player to ever suit up for Duke, winning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year three times during her college career and leading the Blue Devils to two Final Fours.

Drafted No. 2 by the Washington Mystics shortly thereafter, Beard was the star of the franchise for six seasons, where she had a double-digit scoring average while adding significant rebounds and assists, too. But in training camp in April, 2010, Beard rolled her ankle while sliding and tore the the posterior tibial tendon, which holds the foot up. It is an unusual injury, and after she had surgery her doctor delivered some stunning news.

“I was told by doctors that I would probably never play again,” Beard said. “They also told the Mystics that.”

She had different ideas.

“I didn’t believe that,” Beard said. “I always knew I would return, and would continue to work towards that. I knew I wouldn’t be the same, but in whatever capacity, I was returning.”

“You hear people saying that you’ll never be the same and you’ll never come back. Those type of things, at that time in my life, motivated me.”

But it was a longer comeback than anyone anticipated. Beard sat for the season and continued a brutal rehab routine, only to re-aggravate the injury that August. She sat out the 2011 season, too. The following winter, when the Mystics didn’t make an offer, Beard signed with the Sparks. It proved to be a good fit.

Beard found herself on a team with All-Star Candace Parker, sharp-shooter Kristi Toliver, veterans Delisha Milton-Jones and Ebony Hoffman, and two outstanding newcomers in Jantel Lavender and Nneka Ogwumike. Beard played inspired basketball and averaged 11.7 points per game that year.

She hasn’t had a double-figure average since, but Beard does many things on court that don’t show up in the box score, like playing lockdown defense. Lavender said she is very impressed by Beard so far this season, in particular.

“As somebody considering retiring last year – she has so much in her, so much firepower. She just leads the team,” Lavender said. “It’s not just as a veteran leader, but someone who leads by example.”

That example is in her eating regimen, her willingness to try new workouts, and in the way she attacks the game.

“She’s not the most vocal but she leads by example – she leads with her intensity,” Lavender said. “You know when she gets turned up because that’s when she starts talking, and she gets hyped off of steals and gets our team going so much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as great defensively and as locked in as she is. I just love it.”

Gail Goestenkors coached Beard at Duke and briefly served as an assistant coach with the Sparks a few years ago. She compared Beard to recently-retired great Tamika Catchings, whose signature was always her on-court hustle.

“From day one, Alana only knows one way to play and practice, and that’s all out, all the time, like Tamika Catchings,” Goestenkors said. “It’s not in her DNA to take a practice or a play off. She knows once she gets on her on the court she can’t help herself.”

Alana Beard launches the shot that propelled the Sparks past the Lynx in Game One of the 2016 WNBA Finals. Photo by Jeff Wheeler, MBR.
Alana Beard launches the shot that propelled the Sparks past the Lynx in Game One of the 2016 WNBA Finals. Photo by Jeff Wheeler, MBR.

Beard did have to take several games off during the 2015 season, as she suffered from plantar fasciitis. But after careful rehab in the offseason she came back strong last year and was one of the stars of the Sparks’ amazing season-long show – especially in the WNBA Finals. Her buzzer-beater shot in Game One against the Lynx won the game for Los Angeles, and helped set the tone for the series against heavily-favored Minnesota.

Agler said Beard’s work ethic and leadership make her a role model to everyone on his team.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” he said. “You can ask a lot of the younger players on our team who they look up to, and who they admire, and who’s a great leader. Of the several they may mention, Alana’s probably going to head that list.”

Beard has worked hard physically for this renaissance of her career, but it is her mental growth that got her to where she is now. Her first few years in the WNBA, she said she was “in the gym every single day.”

“I worked my butt off,” she said. “But, thinking back on it, I didn’t work very efficiently. I didn’t know how to work efficiently, and injuries happened.”

The 2017 Beard is happy not to be expected to do it all, on a talented team. That has helped her focus and refine her skills.

“I figured out what I was good at, and locked into that,” Beard said. “When playing on this team, you can’t do everything. I know my role and play it to the best of my ability. It is the most fulfilling thing, to play your role.”

She said she has also put basketball in perspective.

“Basketball is just basketball,” she said. “I don’t stress when we lose, or when I have a bad game. My effort is in my control.”

And like many a veteran before her, Beard has learned to work smarter instead of harder, as well as to conserve her energy as much as possible. Agler assists her in that.

“Sometimes I’ll get upset when he pulls me out of practice, but it’s in my best interest,” she said.

Alana Beard signs items after a game. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.
Alana Beard signs items after a game. Photo by NBAE via Getty Images.

Agler has also watched out for Beard off the court, including last year when he heard she was surfing on her down time. He went online and found a story about Chicago Bulls Center Luc Longley, who separated his shoulder surfing in the same waters two decades earlier. It cost him two months of his season.

“I sent her that article. I didn’t say anything to her, I just sent it to her,” Agler said. “She read it and came and told me she was going to quit surfing until the season was over.”

Off the court, Beard has always had a strong base of support from her family, and is close to both of her parents, and her brother. She said her parents laid a foundation for her and have trusted she would make the right decisions.

“When I was injured, they just treated it like ‘it is what it is,'” Beard said. “They knew I was working to get back, but if I had just walked away, they would have been fine with that.”

Yet, when the Sparks won the Championship, no one was happier for Beard than her mother, Marie.

“Just hearing that release of rejoice from my mom was indescribable,” Beard said. “After all I had gone through, it was never spoken. But when we won, it was like she won, too.”

During individual player portraits with the Championship trophy, Beard had her mother join her, and the image of the two dancing is featured on Beard’s Twitter account profile.

“I know having the support system I do is rare,” Beard said.

Alana Beard and her mother Marie dance with the 2016 WNBA Championship trophy. Photo courtesy of Alana Beard.
Alana Beard and her mother Marie dance with the 2016 WNBA Championship trophy. Photo courtesy of Alana Beard.

Whenever she does decide to leave basketball, Beard already has another career set up: restaurant owner. She and longtime friend and former teammate Marissa Coleman, who plays for the Indiana Fever, opened a Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers franchise in Roanoke, Virginia last fall. Opening day was successful, they were told.

“Neither one of us were able to make it,” Coleman said. “Alana was in the WNBA Finals, and I was (playing) overseas already.”

But the confetti from the title celebration had hardly been swept when Beard was headed East to take over restaurant operations. Coleman said her friend became the rock for the restaurant staff, and made sure things ran smoothly.

“She channels her emotions really well, so it wasn’t a shuffle process or anything like that. She did a good job handling everything,” Coleman said.

Once the eatery was up and running, Beard left to play overseas in January. She came back to Los Angeles four months later, ready to go. She was inspired by the thought of continuing after such a compelling 2016 season.

“It’s human nature to always want more, and to want more with this group of women,” Beard said. “It’s something that you just can’t turn down.”

Goestenkors said she is impressed with Beard’s resilience and professionalism.

“She does everything she can do to help herself be the best possible player she can; she’s a pro’s pro,” Goestenkors said. “Whether winning or losing, she’s always a pro.”

And like a pro, Beard is savoring the relationships she has with her teammates, and looks forward to every game.

“This is a once in a lifetime thing when it comes to basketball, so you kind of have to just enjoy it,” she said. “Enjoy the moment, enjoy the people that you have around, especially when you have a special group like we do.”

Additional contributions by Brian Love

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