Ogwumike’s career high paces Sparks to 15-1 start

Nneka Ogwumike leads the WNBA in field goal percentage, shooting 70.4 percent. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Sparks.
Nneka Ogwumike leads the WNBA in field goal percentage, shooting 70.4 percent. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Sparks.

Los Angeles, Calif. – The Los Angeles Sparks are a league best 15-1 after Nneka Ogwumike paced them to an 84-75 win over the Atlanta Dream Thursday.

Ogwumike posted a career-high 38 points, and had 11 rebounds and five blocks on 13-of-14 shooting to help the Sparks tie the 1998 Houston Comets for best season start in 16 games. Candace Parker added 16 points and Essence Carson, 15.

The Dream rallied from a deficit to cut the Los Angeles lead to 76-73 with two minutes remaining, but Ogwumike had a block and then scored on Atlanta’s ensuing possession. She clinched the win with six straight free throws in the final minute.

Tiffany Hayes had a career-high 32 points for Atlanta, while Elizabeth Williams added 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Sparks coach Brian Agler gave props to both Ogwumike and the entire team.

“(Ogwumike) can manufacture points in a lot of different ways, more than just scoring,” he said. “She knows how to get other people open, she’s a great passer, she can push the ball down the floor and deliver in transition.”

“Nneka had a big night tonight, but it takes her teammates, who have to get the ball to her. They did a good job of finding her, and she delivered.”

Dream coach Michael Cooper said defending both Ogwumike and Parker is a challenge.

“Nneka is a different type of post player; he is a very mobile type of post player,” he said. “She doesn’t play like a post player, she plays like a three. That’s what is special about that young lady. When you have Candace [Parker] that’s playing like a guard and then you add Nneka to the mix, it’s a difficult match up for anyone. We will see them in Atlanta next week, perhaps the outcome will be different then.”

Los Angeles, like other teams, has been playing a game every other day or so for the past two weeks, and they are fighting fatigue at times. They get Friday off, their first day off in over a week. But their schedule won’t get any easier, as they hit the road after a home stand next week.

“This stretch to the Olympic break will be very grueling and wearing on our team, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” Agler said. “(Friday) is a day off that they need, and we’ll take advantage and work on Saturday.”

Agler said the wear and tear is just as much mental as it is physical.

“I don’t like making excuses, but this is that time of the year where a lot of teams are playing a lot of games, and we’re one of them,” Agler said. “As much as you want to give time off, it’s mental fatigue as well.”

“It’s constantly having to prepare for the next game, getting done with one and absorbing the scout for the next team. It’s not just wearing for our team but for every team. You try to keep things simple. I’m glad we have a team that finds ways to persevere, because this isn’t easy.”

Ogwumike said she and her teammates are being careful to regulate their energy levels at this point of the season.

“A lot of times when we have these games every other day, preparation is being smart with what you do with your body,” she said. “In practice (the day before) we didn’t do much; we walked through, we shot, we watched film. It was also understanding what this team brings and what we need to come out and do.”

For the Sparks, however, the ability to persevere through a tough schedule marks a new era. In recent years they have collapsed under pressure, whereas now they are winning anyway. The game against Atlanta was the third in a row that Los Angeles was behind at halftime and came back to win in the second half.

Player contribution also figures in: when one player is having an off game, multiple others can step up to take her place. In Tuesday’s game against Dallas, Ogwumike was in foul trouble and Parker scored 31 points. Against the Dream, it was Ogwumike who went off on a scoring binge.

“It’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Parker said of the balanced team effort. “It’s amazing, and that’s what’s so special about it.”

“We’re mentally tougher this year. The games we lost last year, we’re winning this year. It shows maturity, and it also shows team chemistry and that we’ve turned the corner.”

Parker acknowledged that the Sparks have come very close to a winning record in years past, but let small mistakes stack up.

“We’ve always been right there. It’s been a shot, a missed box out, a foul, it’s always been just that,” Parker said. “And I think this year, from the get-go, we’re taking care of the little things. So the little things are taken care of so they don’t hurt us. That’s the important part.”

Los Angeles takes on the Eastern Conference-leading New York Liberty Sunday at Staples Center.