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Epic collapse avoided as Sparks show resolve

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Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray were the difference makers for the Los Angeles Sparks, who survived a 20-4 run in the third to defeat the winless San Antonio Stars Thursday night.

Andrew Berstein - Getty Images

Los Angeles, CA -- Before Thursday night’s matchup between the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks and San Antonio Stars, Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler told the team this:

“There’s no such thing as an easy night.”

Agler couldn’t have been more right, as his Sparks (7-3) blew a 20-point halftime lead before managing to escape Staples Center with an 80-75 win over the Stars (0-10).

The game was definitely a tale of two halves, with the Sparks controlling the first half and the Stars playing the role of David to Los Angeles’ Goliath in the second.

Candace Parker scored the first five points of the game for the Sparks, who raced out to a quick 11-4 lead. Los Angeles took advantage of a slow start by the Stars, who struggled to get any sort of flow going in the opening minutes. By the end of the quarter, Los Angeles led 25-11.

In the second quarter, San Antonio’s offense started to come alive, with Monique Currie and Moriah Jefferson starting a 5-0 run to give the Stars some momentum. Defending MVP Nneka Ogwumike put the run to a halt with a pair of free throws for Los Angeles, who systematically dismantled San Antonio from the line.

Los Angeles went 19-of-20 from the charity stripe (San Antonio didn’t attempt a single free throw the entire first half) to build a comfortable 46-26 halftime lead.

However, the one concern for the defending champion Sparks managed to arise again after the half: keeping a lead.

Currie started the flurry for San Antonio, banking in the first points of the second half. From there, she handed the reins to Jefferson and Isabelle Harrison, who combined to give San Antonio a 20-4 run in the middle of the quarter. A 20-point lead, in a matter of four minutes, evaporated to two before the Sparks’ very eyes.

Off the bench, Jantel Lavender came to save the day for the Sparks, going on a personal 6-0 run to help keep the Sparks afloat. Chelsea Gray banked in a long two-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sparks a 58-50 lead going into the final frame.

Ogwumike noted that the lack of effort coming out of halftime was something that can’t continue.

“I think it kind of contributes to the style of our team. We have to work on coming out of the half better,” Ogqumike said.

San Antonio started the scoring run in the fourth with a Kayla McBride jumper to bring the Stars within six. The remainder of the game was close, with each team trading baskets back and forth, the crowd visibly sweating as the Stars nearly took the upset win. However, Gray came to save the day, scoring 10 points in the quarter to dim the Stars’ chances.

Jefferson made two three-pointers in the final 10 seconds to bring the Stars within four, but the team wasn’t able to capitalize, fouling twice. The Sparks made two of their four free throws at the end to seal the deal and remain a perfect 5-0 at home.

Moriah Jefferson led all scorers with 24 points off the bench for San Antonio, who have now lost ten straight to start the season. Isabelle Harrison (22, career-high) and Dearica Hamby (14) were the only other players in double figures for the Stars. Their top two draft picks, Kelsey Plum and Nia Coffey, both went scoreless.

Jefferson saw the game as a difference of two halves, and felt like the Stars could’ve walked out with the upset.

“We know playing LA is tough anywhere and playing them at home is 10 times harder so we wanted to try to come out and be really aggressive and I don’t think we did that in the first half. We dug ourselves too big of a whole, the second half we played terrific and the entire half was great we made some mistakes but if we played like that the first half I think the game would have went another way,” Jefferson said.

San Antonio head coach Vickie Johnson chose to focus on the positive adjustments her young team made during the game.

“We have a very young team. I didn’t beat them or go at them. I encouraged more than anything. I just told them to play together, play with confidence on both sides of the ball, most important thing. The second half was a glimpse of how good we can be on both sides of the ball, and that’s the main thing: on both sides of the ball and not just on the offensive side, also on the defensive side,” Johnson said.

Candace Parker led the scoring charge for the Sparks, scoring 20. Chelsea Gray nearly missed her third straight game with 20 or more points, finishing with 19. The reigning MVP, Nneka Ogwumike finished with a near double-double, netting 16 points and nine rebounds.

Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler had mixed feelings about his team’s performance, noting that he was excited about the win but sees room for improvement.

“I don’t know if I have the answer for that. We were two different teams from the first half to the second. I will say that I commend San Antonio on how they played in the second half. There would have been a lot of reason for them to shut it down trailing by 20 half-time but they didn’t—they regrouped, competed hard, executed and put us ‘on our heels’.

“I thought offensively in the second half we got stagnant and we weren’t as quick to rotate in the second half versus the first. I’m happy that we won and had the ability to pull that out. I’m excited about how we played in the first half but the full game showed that we are not where we want to be yet.”

San Antonio continues their three-game road trip on Saturday, taking on the Seattle Storm, who after a hot start have lost three in a row. Los Angeles will host Phoenix on Sunday before going on a three-game road trip of their own.