Los Angeles – The Sparks trailing by nine in the third quarter Thursday night, went on a 20-2 run against the Silver Stars to close out a 93-86 first-round playoff win.
Kristi Toliver, who was named the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year prior to the game, lead the Sparks with 29 points. Candace Parker had 25 points – 10 of which were in the fourth quarter, and nine rebounds, while Nneka Ogwumike put up 12 points, including nine in the third period.
Becky Hammon lead the Silver Stars with 19 points, while Danielle Adams added 17.
Los Angeles got off to a slow start, and fell behind by as many as 10 points in the third quarter before an Ogwumike driving reverse layup seemed to ignite the team. A driving Parker layup to end the third quarter put the Sparks within two points, and they took the lead for good at the fourth period 7:07 mark.
The game was at USC’s Galen Center, where the crowd cheered loudly for the home team. Afterwards, Sparks veteran forward Delisha Milton-Jones told the audience they’d been “the sixth man.”
Sparks Coach Carol Ross said that as her team has done in the past, they came out sluggish.
“We just didn’t come out with the energy, intensity or focus at the beginning of the game. We needed to kick them in the pants a little bit to get out of this (slow start). It took 2 ½ quarters to really get a fire lit under them. But to their credit, I think we had 14 points in the paint at halftime, and ended up with 40. We really were aggressive, and we got to the foul line because of it, and we were able to knock down foul shots late in the game. ”
“I felt like the theme that was recurring for the first two and a half quarters was that we were doing what was easy. You’re in the playoffs, you can’t do what’s easy; you have to do what’s right,” Ross said. “And most times that’s very difficult to do the right thing. Driving it is certainly harder than shooting a jump shot; switching is a lot easier than sticking with your person and getting the right matchup. We fell into a place we didn’t want to be, and I felt the players really did a great job of fighting their way out of that.”
“We quit settling. We quit doing the easy things. I thought we clamped down better defensively, I thought we rebounded the ball and got us out in the open court…and it got us in transition, we were aggressive and hard early on the offensive end, and it really put them on their heels, and it gave us an opportunity to get into the paint and to the rim.”
“It’s called team defense – we didn’t play it very well at times.”
Parker sat out a good portion of the third quarter, and she knew why.
“Coach was upset at me for my lack of rebounding, which she should have been,” Parker said. “There were a lot of rebounds that Jayne Appel got, that Danielle Adams got that I have to get. They were bobbling off my hand and I just wasn’t boxing out. She didn’t say anything to me – she just took me out and I kind of understood why, and I was able to come back in and rebound much better.”
She made a key observation about the Sparks.
“Honestly I’d rather take our team down 10 than up 20 because we like to fight, and we kind of get complacent when we get ahead. I think we did a good job of recognizing what we needed to do, and play through it. The key thing that sticks out in the second half is we just killed in the paint, and that’s where we need to live. We don’t need to settle for jump shots – we need to go to the basket,” Parker said.
Toliver took some positives from LA’s response to being down.
“We were getting our butts kicked,” she said. “We had to come in and play with a lot of pride – a lot of urgency – and that was something we lacked from the beginning. This game was inspiring for us because we know we can’t continue to put ourselves in those positions, but also it shows a lot of character that we’re able to out of them. We know going on the road, their [arena] is going to be rocking and it is not going to be for us. The way we were aggressive in the third quarter – that’s how we need to start the game.”
Silver Stars Coach Dan Hughes said the key to their loss was their ability to get to the free throw line only 11 times.
“The story of the game was 32 free-throws to 11,” Hughes said. “We out-rebounded them, out-goaled them, out-threed them, but I’ve got to take a look at tape to undersandt why we fouled so much. Because statistically we foul the least in the WNBA. That’s the story of the game to me .”
“I’ve coached Sophia Young and Becky Hammon for six years. This is the first game I’ve coached them where neither one shot a free-throw.”
The Sparks travel to San Antonio for Saturday’s game two, at noon Pacific/3 p.m. Eastern.