and by Sue Favor
Los Angeles – The Los Angeles Sparks bottled momentum from their pre-game Championship ring ceremony Friday to top the visiting Mystics, 99-89.
Reigning league MVP Nneka Ogwumike led five Sparks in double figures with 23 points, while rookie Sydney Wiese scored 22 points, including six three-point shots.
Los Angeles stretched an 11-point halftime lead to a 74-53 advantage halfway into the third quarter, but Washington forward Elena Delle Donne sparked a 17-4 run for her team with eight of those points. Tayler Hill’s buzzer-beater trimmed the host’s lead to 78-70 at the end of the period.
The Sparks hung tough in the fourth quarter, using defense when their shots weren’t falling, to stop the Mystics. Delle Donne led the visitors with 27 points, while Hill added 20.
It was the first game back for Candace Parker, Essence Carson and Jantel Lavender, who all finished up their playing seasons in Turkey a few days ago, got on a plane to Los Angeles and suited up at what was the middle of the night in Turkey, where they had been all winter. Parker scored 18 points, Carson three, and Lavender didn’t play.
Sparks coach Brian Agler was especially impressed by Parker’s performance.
“It’s like she didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “I’m just really impressed with her ability to play after a 15-hour plane ride and playing in a tough series two days ago, then walking in today for shoot around and doing that.”
“She said she wanted to play, so we played her.”
A revamped Mystics have been scrambling to develop chemistry after adding Delle Donne and former Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver over the winter, as well as bringing back a few other players. Coach Mike Thibault said he was pleased with his team’s fight in the second half.
“We were not good in the first quarter and we had a lot of sloppy turnovers, but we stayed in the game,” he said. “They were on the verge of blowing us out and we kept playing and all of a sudden, we got it close.”
“There’s a reason they’re really good, and it’s scary that Lavender didn’t even play.”
Thibault said Washington’s continued progress will be measured by their defense and physicality.
“The chemistry is great,” he said. “They talk throughout the game and in the locker room. There’s a lot of positivity there.”
The Sparks received their 2016 WNBA Championship rings in a ceremony before the game, which ironically included Toliver. League president Lisa Borders presented rings to players, and then Finals MVP Parker said a few words to the crowd. It was emotional for all.
“The group from last year is really special, and it means so much to be able to share this last day with them and wrap up the 2016 season and to go forward into this season with a lot of memories because we were a close-knit group,” Parker said.
Toliver, whose rolling floor hug with Parker after the title win was played repeatedly afterward, said she was struck by the moment.
“The whole ring ceremony obviously was emotional for me, just kinda reflecting on the past year and all the memories I made with my friends,” she said.
For Wiese, seeing her teammates get their rings gave her added motivation for her first season.
“I defiantly want to make sure that we are put into a [playoff] position,” she said. “Our team is working hard right now.”
The 2-0 Sparks hit the road now to face Indiana on Wednesday, while Washington continues north to face the Storm on Sunday.