Los Angeles, CA — There are only five words to explain how the Los Angeles Sparks managed to wiggle out of a tough second half, to finish their final game of the regular season, with a 71-65 win over the San Antonio Stars:
Chelsea Gray and Jantel Lavender.
Yes, one might want to add Nneka Ogwumike into the sentence above, granted she grabbed her 16th double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but despite her large contribution, Gray and Lavender succeeded at exactly the right time, enough to lift and re-energize their team, as they struggled – especially with the loss of Candace Parker to injury.
A simple rewind into the first half tells a different story, however. The Sparks – who are the second best team in the WNBA – had a comfortable 36-24 lead entering the second half.
But the Sparks began to slip in the third quarter, and it was the fourth quarter that changed it all, and indeed determined the standout players of the game.
As the Stars suddenly cut the Sparks lead down to nothing – the game was tied at 42 – the Sparks looked to their two best bench players to get them out of the mess they made for themselves. The Sparks finished the game with a staggering 22 turnovers.
"We wanted to get some momentum going into the playoffs, and this was a heck of a challenge. They're difficult to play against,” said Sparks head coach Brian Agler.
“If you look at how they've played lately, they went to the wire with Minnesota, they went to Atlanta and beat Atlanta, and they went to the wire with us. They're playing really good basketball right now.”
Thankfully, Gray and Lavender were there. While Ogwumike was resting in the last two-quarters - a smart move by Agler since the Sparks are already in the playoffs – the Sparks fell apart.
After a major beat down by the Stars in the third, and early in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles zipped back, going on an 11-0 run, led by both Gray and Lavender, and suddenly found themselves back in the game, leading 60-49.
Then, after San Antonio countered with their own 8-0 run, the dynamic duo scored the most critical shots of the game, making huge plays by assisting their teammates on the court and hitting big shots when they mattered, both inside and outside of the paint.
It was still a close game until the very end, free throws from both Gray and Lavender propelled the Sparks in the last 58 seconds, getting them over the hill and into winning territory.
Those critical four minutes of the game, when Gray and Lavender took charge, should be dubbed “the turning point,” because, without them, the Sparks would have surely been dropped by the Stars -- the worst team in the league.
San Antonio played a tough game – as they usually do – but no two people were tougher than Gray and Lavender.
Lavender finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Gray finished with 13 points, four rebounds and two assists.
Ogwumike is easy to highlight because she is always good, that’s why she is one of the finalists for the MVP award this season and also finished the game as the leading scorer. However, without the energized and well-timed display of tenacity and grit by Gray and Lavender, I probably would have written about a stunning upset.
“It really speaks to our hard work and the talent that we have. Our team plays really well together, but with the talent and the cohesiveness, I think our team can get very far in the playoffs. It shows with the individual contenders we have up for awards this season,” said Ogwumike on several of her teammates being up for awards.
For the past few weeks (maybe the whole season honestly), WNBA fans and analysts everywhere have been asking themselves if for once, there can be two Sixth Woman of the Year trophies handed out at the end of this season, both going to Gray and Lavender.
Why? Because of their contributions like they made during yesterday’s game, where the duo reinforced the fact that they always show up when needed the most and contribute critical elements to the Sparks during every play they are a part of.
"We have great momentum going into the playoffs. We're starting to get back to how we
play which is good, and that's what we need, so I'm excited."
So despite Ogwumike’s stellar performance, it cannot go unnoticed when players show up exactly when they need to, especially when they come off of the bench.
Gray said, "We have great momentum going into the playoffs. We're starting to get back to how we play which is good, and that's what we need, so I'm excited."