LOS ANGELES, CA -- Sunday's matinee showdown at Staples Center, was not short of star power, when the red-hot New York Liberty came to town to face off against the best team in the league, the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sparks are not just atop the Western Conference at 15-1, but are the league's winningest team as the season hits the halfway point.
BEST IN THE CLASS: The Sparks lead the league in defense, allowing 72.8 points per game, assist per game (20.8), and three-point percentage (38.9%).
And if it was any other team that New York was playing Sunday, the spotlight would be on Bill Laimbeer and what his lineup have been able to accomplish, as of late. The Liberty have the best road record at 8-1, with their single road loss coming from Los Angeles back on June 7 in a 100-77 defeat; after today they will now be 8-2 on the road thanks once again to the Sparks.
"The last time we played them," Liberty forward Tina Charles said, "there was no competition."
But the Liberty came into today's matchup hot off two very strong roads wins. And if their 95-92 win in overtime against Minnesota on Wednesday proved anything, it was New York is a force to be reckoned with, and more importantly are a much different team from the last time Los Angeles saw them.
The Sparks opened the first quarter in perfect unison. Sparks center Candace Parker, put up the first points of the game off an assist from Kristi Toliver. Los Angeles' guard Alana Beard, got comfortable early, hitting her first three-point shot of the game to make it 5-4.
However, it was the dynamic duo of Parker and forward Nneka Ogwumike, that stole the show in the first 10 minutes. The birthday girl (whose birthday was yesterday), Oguwmike, is coming off her career high 38-point game and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Most noticeably, when Parker found Ogwumike in traffic to get the running layup, followed immediately by a jump shot to give the Sparks an early lead, 16-8. Parker got her 10th point of the game on a running layup to give the Sparks a 23-15 lead.
But New York is never out of contention, especially with forward Tina Charles on the court. Charles started damage control, putting up six points in the first quarter and keeping the Liberty alive.
Charles' efforts were reinforced with the help of guard Sugar Rodgers. Rodgers hit her first three-point shot of the night, followed by a two-point shot late in the first to bring New York within six, 19-25.
The second quarter belonged to the Sparks. Ogwumike continued to dominant on both sides of the ball for Los Angeles.
"Nneka is hungry," explained Sparks Head Coach Brian Agler, "there's a level she's playing at that surpasses everyone else."
Ogwumike hit an early layup to increase the Sparks lead to six, 27-21. She then turned around and contributed on defense on a steal from Liberty Tanisha Wright, where she found Essence Carson on the other end to get the assist and put Los Angeles up 37-29.
Carson followed suit on an assist to Beard late in the final minute of the half to give the Sparks their biggest lead of the night, 42-31.
While New York would not lead once in the first half, Charles continued to put up MVP candidate worthy numbers. Charles found the rim on an assist from Swin Cash to bring the Liberty within six again, 35-29. She would find the basket three more times late in the second quarter, closing out the half with 25 points alone.
The battle of conference leaders heated up quickly in the third quarter. Rodgers and Charles got to work quickly in hopes of closing the gap. Rodgers hit a three-point shot off an assist by Charles to bring the Liberty within three, 41-44. Rodgers would turn around and find Charles, who hit a jump shot to tie up the game for the first time, 45-45.
Charles gave her team their first lead and more importantly a chance at redemption when she hit a jump shot midway through the third quarter to give New York the lead, 50-47.
"My teammates put me in the position to be successful," said Charles, "it gives me the confidence I need, knowing my team has confidence in me."
But Charles' offensive campaign would be short lived, as Los Angeles capitalized on New York's missed opportunities.
"We had the lead, but we couldn't score" said Coach Laimbeer, "we couldn't make shots, and we turned the ball over."
Bottomline: New York struggled to contain Los Angeles, especially in the fourth quarter. Parker and Ogwumike remained vigilant on their pursuit to remain atop the league.
"New York is a great team, and we knew it was going to be harder this time to get a win" said Ogwumike, "but we wanted to come out and be aggressive."
And Los Angeles did just that, playing a solid 40-minutes of aggressive basketball, with every member contributing.
The last minutes of the fourth quarter was a shining example that Los Angeles plays as a team, as Parker and Oguwmike hit back-to-back three pointers, followed almost instantly by Beard's jumper, solidifying yet another victory for the Sparks, 76-67.
"It means a lot to be able to rely on a team as a whole," said Parker, "you never know when it's your time to step up, but we are capable of it, and we have shown that all year."
While the Liberty (12-6) are 0-2 against the Sparks this season, Coach Laimbeer and company are looking forward to the opportunity to meet again.
"We pushed through our fatigue," said Coach Laimbeer, "and showed up more than we did last time, but we are going to keep playing our game, because we want to see them again."
In the meantime, Los Angeles will host the Fever when they come to town on Wednesday at Staples Center.