Dream upend Sparks as playoffs race heats up

Angel McCoughtry drives past Alana Beard. Photo by Ken Brooks/TGsportstv1/
Angel McCoughtry drives past Alana Beard. Photo by Ken Brooks/TGsportstv1/

Los Angeles, Calif. – The Atlanta Dream elevated their playoff stock Thursday, holding off the higher-seeded Los Angeles Sparks, 86-81.

Angel McCoughtry lead five Atlanta players in double figures with 32 points and 11 rebounds, while Elizabeth Williams added 15 points and 12 rebounds. Candace Parker, Essence Carson and Chelsea Gray each had 16 points for the Sparks.

The win gave the visitors sole possession of fourth place in league standings, behind second place Los Angeles. The Dream are now 3-5 since returning from Olympic break, and the Sparks have now dropped two straight games.

Atlanta controlled the game from the opening tip, as Williams flicked the ball to Tiffany Hayes, who scored on a driving layup. The first quarter deluge was on, with the Dream outscoring the Sparks by 12 points in the period.

Los Angeles mounted a comeback attempt late in the second quarter, and trailed at halftime by only five points. They continued to battle Atlanta in the game’s second half, whittling their 15-point lead to two in the final minute on a Kristi Toliver three-pointer. But the Dream clamped down to outscore them 6-3 down the stretch.

Atlanta coach Michael Cooper was impressed with the way his team closed out the win.

“We’ve kind of been going up and down, but again, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish and these last two games are very indicative of the type of team we are,” he said. “When we come and play and compete, we’re probably one of the best teams in this league, and we showed that.”

Cooper said the Dream have been more focused since returning to the court.

“After the Olympic break, I think we’ve done a lot of positive things on the defensive end, as well as the offensive end, and to come here to L.A. and beat a very very very good basketball team shows that we’re on the right track and we’re headed in the right way,” he said.

Williams said her team is eager for wins this late in the season.

“It’s something we’ve talked about is urgency,” she said. “Just playing with high energy from the beginning, because as we go forward we’ve noticed that’s when we play well, so we’ve been keeping that in mind.”

The high energy play certainly had its effect, with Atlanta holding the advantage over Los Angeles in paint production and second chance opportunities.

“We’ve definitely have to get better with our points in the paint and I think that’s what helped us today,” McCoughtry said. “All the small things, outrebounding them, points in the paint, transition buckets, really helped us tonight.”

The Sparks are now 3-4 since returning from break, and even with a playoff berth clinched before that, coach Brian Agler doesn’t want his team to relax during these last three games in preparation for the playoffs.

“I think human nature is when you’re locked into a position, you know you’re going to make the playoffs – human nature is to relax,” he said. “When you play against a team that’s fighting for their lives, they’re going to come out and jump right on you, like what happened tonight.”

Agler said he wouldn’t tolerate poor play.

“We’re either going to compete, or we’re not going to play. That’s the way it’s going to be” he said.

The Sparks will look to get back in the win column on Sunday when they visit the Seattle Storm at Key Arena.