Seattle – In the waning moments of the third quarter on Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Sparks seemed headed for their fourth loss in as many games.
A Breanna Stewart lay-up had given Seattle a 12-point lead — their largest of the game — and capped a 22-6 run, forcing Sparks head coach Brian Agler to call a time out.
Over the final 12-plus minutes of regulation, Los Angeles held the Storm to just 10 points (six in the final quarter), as they snapped a three-game skid with a 77-75 overtime victory. Candace Parker neared a triple-double to lead the Sparks, finishing with 21 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, while Essence Carson came off the bench for 18 points, and Nneka Ogwumike scored 14.
“We didn’t play perfectly, but what matters is we played hard,” Ogwumike said. “That’s what we were really happy about.”
Natasha Howard had a team-high 18 points for Seattle and Stewart posted 14 points and 13 rebounds. Sue Bird added 13 point and eight assists.
In front of their first sell-out crowd of the season, the Storm had three chances on their final possession of overtime to force another five-minute period. But a Bird jumper with six seconds left bounced out, as did a shot from the free-throw line by Howard, and a put-back just before the buzzer by Stewart.
“I thought I had a good look to put it back,” Stewart said. “It was a little rushed because of the time, but I should have made the shot.”
Los Angeles led by seven after one quarter, and took a two-point lead into halftime by taking advantage of 14 Seattle turnovers in the first 20 minutes (en route to a season-high 21).
“I think that we were playing a little fast, not making the right reads,” said Storm forward Alysha Clark. “We made a focal point to take care of the ball for the rest of the game because they were scoring off our turnovers.”
It was Clark who came up big for Seattle in the third quarter, scoring all 12 of her points and pacing the team to a 60-50 advantage heading into the final period.
But that offensive outburst didn’t carry into the game’s closing minutes. An Alana Beard jumper with 1:15 to play capped the Sparks comeback at 66-66, with the Storm forcing overtime as a would-be game-winning fadeaway from Parker bounced out at the buzzer.
“I thought we came out in the third quarter and created a pace that we needed to play at but in the fourth, we had a hard time finishing,” said Seattle head coach Dan Hughes. “Our ability to offensively complement the flow of the game, we struggled a little bit. We just didn’t finish some plays that are typical for us.”
The Sparks outscored the Storm 11-9 in the extra period.
“We got stops, we made shots,” Carson said. “That last few seconds we were able to put a hand in their faces. In our losses recently we’ve missed too many easy shots. Today we executed, and we played defense.”
Agler said the compacted season took its toll on his team.
“It’s been a real grueling season,” he said. “We finally got our first complete day off in over three weeks a couple days ago, so I know exactly what (Seattle is) going through. We had to go through it ourselves, and we’re happy to come in her and get a win.”
The loss ended the Storm’s five-game winning streak, but a Phoenix loss to Dallas on Tuesday night meant that Seattle retained a one-game lead on first place in the WNBA.
Los Angeles now returns home to face the Wings on Thursday afternoon, while the Storm wraps up its three-game homestand on Saturday against Dallas.
In the crowd: NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving sat courtside, the second time in as many years he’s taken in a Storm game.
Candace Parker tied a career-high with four steals.
Essence Carson grabbed her 700th career rebound.
Seattle’s six fourth quarter points tied a franchise-low for fewest points in the final period.
The win was Los Angeles’s first at KeyArena since 2015, snapping a six-game home winning streak for the Storm against the Sparks.
There are those basketball players whom coaches and teammates sometimes have to motivate. Whether they drift into disengagement on court, take a play off or seem to be moving in slow-motion, they need a word – or five.
Brittney Sykes is not one of those athletes.
The second-year Atlanta Dream guard is a fast-breaking force of nature between the lines, creatively slashing to the basket at lightening speed, locking down opponents on defense and sometimes rising up to emphatically reject a shot.
She plays with such passion and emotion that she sometimes has to consciously take her foot off the gas. But the New Jersey native never stays in the slow lane for long.
Chosen No. 7 by Atlanta in last year’s draft when she wasn’t invited to the event, Sykes proved to be the steal of the class. She started 23 games, averaged 13.9 points in 24 minutes per outing, and was runner-up for rookie of the year.
This season Sykes’ role on the young team is different. With the return of Angel McCoughtry, who sat out 2017, Sykes began on the bench. But since rebounding from an ankle sprain, which kept her out of five games, Sykes has returned hungrier than ever. She made a reappearance in the starting lineup Sunday, and scored 20 points on 7-12 shooting, dished seven assists and snatched four rebounds in electrifying play.
Coach Nicki Collen said Sykes’ enthusiasm is contagious.
“She is a bit of a human highlight film when she is on the floor, from high-flying blocked shots to explosive moves to the rim, she is so fun to watch,” Collen said. “She brings instant offense to the basketball court that energizes her teammates and the crowd.”
And as her game as grown, so has Sykes’ confidence off-court, which has paved the way for a new role for her there, too: the humorous player of the team. This season Sykes is a walking comedy channel with no commercials, from joke-telling to deadpan commentary to good old-fashioned silliness. No one is safe from her attempts to engage, including Collen herself, who donned a do-rag last month after losing a bet and then laughed with Sykes about it on an Instagram video.
Veteran Tiffany Hayes said her teammate didn’t express herself as much as a rookie, but this year “it is all coming out.”
“She’s always got some type of dance or some type of joke to show us, even if it’s on her phone,” Hayes said. “She keeps us laughing all the time. She’s a natural clown.”
Seeing Sykes now, it is easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that her basketball future looked anything but bright, as she struggled to come back from two major injuries incurred 10 months apart. But with some assistance, and a lot of work and growth on her part, the 24-year-old is a changed woman, with unlimited potential.
“She’s always been like that – she will give it everything she can,” said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman, who coached Sykes for four years. “She’s an amazing kid.”
Much growth through adversity, with an assist
Sykes had a textbook high school career, ending as a top recruit and being named to the McDonald’s All-American team in 2012. She had a good first year at Syracuse but exploded in her sophomore season, scoring 532 total points, which was eighth-best in school history at the time.
Yet, in the first game of the NCAA Tournament that year, Sykes crumpled to the ground in the waning minutes with a torn ACL. The image of Hillsman leaning over her with one hand on her head and the other holding her hand was widely-circulated.
Sykes poured her heart into recovery, and had planned to be ready for that next season. But just three games into the schedule, the unthinkable happened: she tore the same ACL again. As she was working through the rehab and recovery process that she had just completed, Hillsman kept a closer eye on her than ever. One day he gave her a call to check on her.
“Coach Q called me one day and asked me if I was OK. I just broke down on the phone, and I’d never broke down in front of anybody,” Sykes said.
Hillsman came to see her, and they had a heart-to-heart discussion.
“He said ‘listen, you need to talk to somebody – a sports psychologist,'” Sykes said. “So we worked it out, went through school, and I found this doctor who I’m still in contact with. He’s my best friend.”
Once Sykes began treatment, she realized she had more work to do than she had thought.
“He not only helped me recover from the second (ACL tear), but I had to go back and recover from the first one, in order to get to the second one,” she said. “So that whole year when we went to the National Championship (2015-2016), that was my first year of talking to him. Then, going into my fifth year, I was in a whole other mindset. Now in this league, I don’t even think about it. If somebody brings it up I’m thinking, “that’s so old.”
Hillsman understood because he had fought through a shoulder injury during his own playing days.
“For her the battle was mental, not physical,” Hillsman said. “She had to get past (the injuries) to become the player she once was. It’s knowing you can do it, and she was just fearless. She came back ready to attack.”
In her last two redshirt seasons in orange, Sykes found herself repeating history. In her junior year, which culminated in an NCAA Division I title game appearance, she averaged 10 points – just slightly more than her freshman average. By her senior year Sykes was eclipsing anything she’d done before, scoring 19.2 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game.
Once she got to Atlanta, Sykes transitioned smoothly to the pro ranks. She said it was because the situation called for her to step up.
“I think being a rookie, you have (not) much time to get it,” she said. “The position I was in, we didn’t have Angel, Tiff had to score a lot, and we needed to help her. So I had this much time to come in and do what I needed to do to help. I did my best.”
Sykes’ best earned her rookie of the month honors last July, the second-most votes for rookie of the year, and a headlining spot on the all-rookie team at the end of the season. She played in Turkey overseas during the winter.
All of her experiences have given Sykes maturity and perspective beyond her years.
“I think she learned a lot in Turkey in those leagues,” Hayes said. “And coming back to our team, she has learned to play a role. Last year she was starting and this year she’s coming off the bench, and she’s taken it to heart; she knows that’s what’s best for the team. I think she knows she’s still a big part of this team. That’s a great part about her.”
Hillsman said Sykes’ resilience and strength have been the key to her growth.
“She’s a kid who gets it,” he said. “She understands her worth, what her skill set is, and her role. She’s a gym rat.”
Veteran Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous became friends with Sykes during their time playing in the Turkish league, and said she admires both the person and the player.
“Right now, she’s in a great place,” Zellous said. “Every time I see her I’m telling her how proud I am of her, and for the way she overcame her injuries. Anybody who made it through two ACL tears can give up on basketball. But her spirits are so high and she’s surrounded herself with mentors and great people to be around to help her get through and not worry about what happened.”
“She’s doing a marvelous job with Atlanta. Last year nobody really expected her to do what she did, and for her to come out and play like she did with Angel being out is tremendous for her. She’s a great person to be around – we really bonded a lot this year overseas. I try to mentor her a little bit about the league and how you stay ready and prepared, how to prevent injuries and how to take care of your body.”
Skyes was good-natured when she was injured last month, and said having to sit out for a few weeks might have ultimately worked in her favor.
“It’s cool, it’s just a sprain,” she said when the Dream came to Los Angeles to play the Sparks. “It’s weird because you have to be careful what you wish for. I was thinking ‘I need rest, I’m so tired.’ I graduated college, I came to the league, I went overseas and then I came right back to the league – that’s a lot. And the type of player I am, it’s no plays off, so it’s taxing.”
“I think this injury is a blessing in disguise for the simple fact that I’ve got other stuff going on with me, and I think this rest for my foot is helping everything else. When I come back I’m going to be fresh. I just hate it because it puts miles on Angel and they’re holding it down. I’ve been in those positions on other teams.”
Sykes has become one to truly celebrate the accomplishments of her teammates.
“I’ve learned about myself that I’m my teammates’ biggest cheerleader,” she said. “I get hyped on the and-one, I’ll flex, or whatever, depending on the moment. If somebody gets a three, oh my goodness. That’s the energy that I bring, where I could almost get a technical. We all feed off it. I never yell at the refs, I always yell out loud.”
Another role Sykes is now filling is that of mentor to forward Monique Billings, who like herself last year, is the only rookie on the team. Billings appreciates it.
“Sykes has been big sis, and her maturity is crazy to me because she’s only a couple years older than me but she seems like a 10-year vet in the way that she carries herself,” Billings said. “In the advice she’s given me, she’s so positive, and sometimes she challenges me. She’s like the big sister I never had, and I appreciate her. We have a lot of fun off the court, we goof around and mess with each other.”
Perhaps most important for her career, Sykes said her life lessons have taught her to appreciate the game and live in the moment.
“I’ve always loved basketball, but I didn’t know how much I loved it until it was taken away from me,” Sykes said. “All the little things I missed about it. Playing, yeah, blocking shots. But I fell back in love with everything that gets you to that point. I lost my way in understanding the process. I was thinking ‘end of game, end of game, end of game.’ My sports psyche told me to start living in the now and stop thinking about the future.”
Picture them rolling
Sykes said her new role as humor ambassador for the Dream has merely brought out a side of her that was always there.
“(Teammate) Bria (Holmes) knew my goofy side because she was always with me last year,” Sykes said. “But now I let it out more, to the rest of the team. It’s a new feel, a new team. I found the balance between work and play.”
She describes her humor style and delivery as “pretty honest.”
“I’m pretty genuine about the things I say and do. I don’t really try, it’s whatever I do or feel at that moment, respectfully,” she said.
Zellous, who is often the jokester for New York, said it is important for an athlete to fill that role on a team.
“She’s hilarious. Her sense of humor is good, and she is someone you want in your locker room, especially if you’re struggling during the season,” Zellous said. “Just to have somebody like her next to you makes everything easier.”
Collen called Sykes “a free spirit on and off the court.” But when the Dream get down to business, the coach knows she can count on her.
“She’s got a lot of basketball knowledge and she comes with it,” Collen said. “And that right there helps us to do it because she expects so much out of us, and we expect a lot out of each other. Credit to her and credit to Renee (Montgomery), because she comes in everyday with the same energy, and it’s infectious.”
Sykes said she takes a “details” approach to basketball.
“Everything’s simple,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve done anything out of my range. I push myself, but I pride myself off of the simple things.”
Collen said there are no ceilings for Sykes.
“Brittney has a passion to play at the highest level, and with some time and right commitment, there is nothing she can’t accomplish when it comes to basketball,” Collen said.
When Bill Laimbeer was asked to talk about Kayla McBride, the Las Aces head coach quipped, “Who?”
The former Notre Dame standout, who led her team to four consecutive Final Fours before being drafted No. 3 in 2014 by the San Antonio Stars, has been a steady presence throughout her WNBA career. But steady doesn’t generate headlines.
A franchise moving to the entertainment capital of the United States generates headlines.
Grabbing the number one pick in a loaded WNBA draft generates headlines.
Yet, it is all the same to McBride, who is continuing to go about her business, one play at a time.
In her fifth year as a pro, McBride is showing off that talent with another best statistical season of her WNBA career, setting highs in points (17.9 per game), field-goal percentage (46.3 percent), and three-point percentage (42.6).
Although her usage rate is the second-lowest of her career, McBride’s improved efficiency has resulted in the best plus-minus since her rookie year, which is the only time McBride’s team has made the WNBA playoffs.
“This is her best year in that department – it shows into number of points scored because she’s shooting a better percentage,” Laimbeer said.
“I challenged her that she has to play every play, every game, at total concentration and maximum energy, and she’s done that for me. She is putting everything out on the floor for us every play.”
McBride has always been a productive starter in the league. She led San Antonio in scoring each of her four seasons and was an All-Star in 2015, but the Stars consistently finished at the bottom of the Western Conference.
Nevertheless, the guard has continued to improve her game, even in a losing situation, and posted her highest rebounds (4.1), assists (2.6), and free-throw percentage (92.5) in the Stars’ final season last year.
“Nobody wants to lose, especially when you get drafted high. You want to make an impact,” McBride said. “It becomes internal motivation to be the player you want to be.”
That work ethic and intensity drew the praise of her new head coach, who compared her to one of his former perimeter stars.
“She’s got a bit of Katie Smith in her,” Laimbeer said of the former WNBA great, who now coaches the New York Liberty. “Very competitive person, understands the game, works very hard at utilizing all the talent she has.”
McBride also credits the team’s fresh start in Las Vegas for giving her renewed energy this year.
Another factor that makes her game much easier is playing with No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson, whose on-court skill and high-scoring ways make her the early favorite for rookie of the year. Being the number one option for four years on a losing team led to McBride racking up high box score totals, but playing with a dominant interior presence who draws the defense has empowered her to play with more freedom.
“I think some people would be a little bit threatened by it. I just embrace it,” McBride said of sharing the floor with Wilson. “In this league, to solidify your legacy, you’ve got to win championships. I just see A’ja as another piece of that.”
Because of her openness, she and Wilson are fast becoming a formidable tandem. In last night’s win over the Chicago Sky, McBride posted 28 points and Wilson, 24.
With her role on the court changing, McBride has challenged herself to take a larger leadership role in the locker room. She hesitates to call herself a veteran, having just turned 26, but McBride is one of the longest-tenured Aces. She understands that she can use her WNBA and international experience to have a valuable impact on a young roster.
Recently she took a stand, with Wilson, for higher pay for WNBA players after some blow back on social media against it.
“If you’re going to speak on something you know nothing about, this is an issue,” McBride said. “This is what I do everyday: I play against the best players in the world all year round to support myself and my family.”
“For someone to attack, that’s when I get upset, because it does take a crazy amount of work and a crazy amount of sacrifice to do what I do every day.”
For the Stars and now the Aces, McBride has been a quiet leader.
“I don’t necessarily talk a lot. When I do, I want to lead by example so my team will listen,” McBride said. “Being a leader is difficult, everyone needs to be spoken to differently … being able to do that and bring the best out of my teammates is something that I’m trying to do.”
Creating a positive culture in Las Vegas will require breaking some bad habits that developed over years of struggling in San Antonio. Laimbeer noted that McBride’s concentration level has been higher this season, but the little things, like boxing out on defense, are the difference between winning and losing.
The veteran guard has her own list of skills to improve upon as well, including ball handling and operating out of the pick-and-roll so she can expand on her reputation in the league as a shooter.
McBride set a career high with 38 points in a loss to Dallas on June 27, but says her team’s back-to-back victories against Seattle and New York a week before are the highlight of Las Vegas’ season thus far.
“It’s just so hard to win in this league, period,” McBride said. “To win two wins back-to-back just shows what we’re capable of.”
As the franchise settles into a new city, there is a chance for the Aces to make an immediate impression, something both McBride and Laimbeer emphasized. McBride is all too familiar with playing well, but not leaving a mark. If Las Vegas wins, that begins to change.
“I think she realizes that this opportunity here for herself and for her franchise is significant,” Laimbeer said. “She realizes that, and she’s embraced it.”
So far, the city has fully embraced the Aces.
“I’m proud of how all my teammates have adapted. All our fans have been amazing, MGM has been amazing. It’s been cool to be a part of something so special,” McBride said. “We’re in a really good position. We’re able to do some really great things if we come together and take on the challenge.”
McBride’s voice buzzes when she talks about the promise of her new team. It has the quick pace of someone in a city, not the drawl of a Texan.
The lights burn bright in Las Vegas. Kayla McBride is starting to shine, too.
Minneapolis – Whenever the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx face off, fans can count on an intense battle between some of the league’s best players in what many call the WNBA’s best rivalry.
Thursday’s match up between the two teams was no different, with Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles, and Maya Moore facing off against Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, and Chelsea Gray. The Sparks had won the last four regular-season match ups and the Lynx were ready to put a tally in the win column, especially after Tuesday’s horrendous loss to the Fever.
Fortunately for Minnesota, Los Angeles stopped sparkling after Independence Day. Brunson had her second big game in a row, this time breaking the WNBA all-time rebounds record in the process, while scoring 15 points. Fowles had a game-high 27 points and Lindsay Whalen added 10. Los Angeles shot just 42.4 percent from the floor, including 30 percent from beyond the arc (6 for 20) while the Lynx went 51.8 percent from the floor, including an astounding eight for 13 from three-point range.
Fowles said the team watched a lot of game film in preparation for the showdown.
“Two days make a whole lot of difference, especially when you can put eyes on things,” Fowles said. “Like I said, the stuff that we watched was very correctable. Just going out there with a clean slate, knowing that it was a new game and just trying to play my game and take what LA gave me. Everything pretty much just worked in our favor tonight.”
Doubt crept in early for Minnesota as Ogwumike started the game with two easy baskets to put the Sparks up 4-0. Brunson added a layup to put the Lynx on the board and Maya Moore added two free throws to tie the game early. Minnesota went on an 8-3 run to extend their lead by seven. Gray hit two late free throws to limit the damage to just five after the first quarter.
Both teams continued to trade baskets in the next frame, with the Lynx’s lead never extending past seven. Gray and Okwumike added baskets with five minutes to play in the first half before Danielle Robinson scored on back-to-back possessions to extend the Lynx lead back to six. They took a three-point lead into the break.
The second half alone provided enough drama for an MTV reality show, as the the physicality of play elevated and with it, tempers. Minnesota closed out the third quarter on a 23-12 run, extending their lead to 13. Neither team could buy a basket to start the fourth period. But midway through Robinson worked the ball down to Fowles, and the Los Angeles defense wrestled it out of her hand, which lead to an Odyssey Sims layup on the other end.
Reeve was livid and yelled at the officials, after which she was assessed a double technical and ejected from the game. Lost in the collective moans and groans from the Target Center crowd was the fact that Brunson had just become the WNBA’s all-time rebounds leader. Two minutes later, the public address announcer notified the crowd of Brunson’s accomplishment, followed by a standing ovation.
With Reeve in the locker room, Fowles took over the game, leading a scoring run that put her team up by 15 points midway through. The Sparks made one final push, but could never get the lead to within nine as the clock ran out. Fowles ended the game making 10 of 11 shots and seven of her eight free throw attempts. She fell one rebound short of career double-double No. 140, while Brunson’s double-double moved her into sole possession of sixth place, surpassing former teammate Yolanda Griffith with No. 82 in the victory.
Reeve said Minnesota was ready for the game.
“I know what I expect in terms of how hard we are going to play,” she said. “I don’t know if I know what to expect about how we are going to play. Whether we will be able to execute or do what we are supposed to do. I never know that. That’s always more of a fingers crossed moment. No coach knows that. I know that we feel a little better physically than we did on Tuesday. Obviously, a loss like that sometimes serves as motivation.”
Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said his team didn’t step up down the stretch to make a serious run.
“I thought Minnesota played well and I thought we did some good things, but we didn’t make the plays in big moments like they did,” he said. “They made some really big plays, and Sylvia had a big night. We didn’t do as good of a job as we would’ve liked. They hit some timely shots and shot the ball well from the three-point line. I thought we had some chances, you know, we had some chances to get over the hump and just never could get over that.”
“It seems like forever since I came into this league, and I had the opportunity to come in playing behind some amazing post players,” Brunson said. “I played behind Yolanda Griffith, DeMya Walke, and Tangela Smith. There were so many great post players that I came in under and got the opportunity to watch and learn. I got the opportunity to play against some of the bets and watch and learn. So I am just blessed to be able to be here.”
Minnesota has won eight of its last nine games, dating back to June 16, and is 1-2 this season against Los Angeles, with one more match up in the series slated for Aug. 2. The Sparks (12-7) dropped their second game in a row.
Tonight was the 63rd regular season match up between the Lynx and Sparks. Los Angeles leads the series, 46-27, and is 19-18 in Minnesota.
This was the first time since 2015 where both teams faced off against each other following a loss.
As of July 5, 11 players from the Lynx and Sparks are in the top-40 of fan votes for the WNBA All-Star Game. For more information about how to vote, fans get click here. Twenty-two players will make up the final rosters, to be announced July 17.