Los Angeles, CA— While All-Star weekend in Seattle treated fans to the very best of comedy, camaraderie, and charismatic personalities, business, as usual, resumed in the WNBA on Tuesday. For the Los Angeles Sparks and the Seattle Storm, this meant a primetime showdown at Staples Center between familiar faces both on the court and on the bench.
Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Sue Bird, and Breanna Stewart all shared the court together on Saturday as Western Conference All-Stars while Sparks head coach, Brian Agler, and Storm head coach, Jenny Boucek, spent five years on the Seattle coaching staff together (2010-2014).
In the chess match that ensued, the Sparks prevailed in a contentious 68-60 victory over a Storm team fighting for a coveted playoff spot.
The difference makers tonight proved to be a staunch Los Angeles defense that forced 20 turnovers and the Sparks’ bench, namely Jantel Lavender and Riquna Williams, who combined for 25 points.
A ferocious Los Angeles defense set the tone early, forcing three turnovers in the first six minutes. Lavender shined early, posting eight points in the first 10 minutes alone off the bench.
“I thought Jantel came in and did what Jantel does,” said teammate Alana Beard. “She shot confidently, we got her in space, and we got her touches. She played her game.”
Although not evident in the scoring column, Beard was an X-factor on the defensive end, accounting for a block and two steals early as well as, crashing the offensive and defensive boards.
Stewart and Jewell Loyd kept the Storm in it early as Stewart put up all of Seattle’s first eight points, and the duo combined to score 17 of Seattle’s 19 first quarter points. The Sparks took a 21-19 lead after the first period.
Not content to let their defense entirely steal the show, the Sparks turned that tenacious defense into offense in the second quarter, forcing seven turnovers in the second frame. The Sparks took what was a two-point first quarter lead and extended it to as many as 17 behind standout play from Parker and Lavender. Parker would finish the first half with a team-leading 14 points while Lavender cashed in with 12.
Parker and Lavender were no doubt the hot hands for Los Angeles, but the unsung hero was desire on the defensive end. Featuring hustle plays like Beard’s pursuit of a loose ball that had her hitting the hardwood floor and prideful efforts on the boards from the likes of Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike.
The Sparks defense forced 11 first half turnovers, held Seattle to an anemic 10 points of offense in the second frame, and frustrated WNBA legend, Bird, to the tune of only one point in the entire first half.
Los Angeles led 40-29 at halftime.
“I thought we competed hard,” said Coach Brian Agler. “I loved how we set the tone. Odyssey and Alana especially set the tone on Loyd and Sue Bird, who are both really good players.”
But the Storm were not to be subdued without a fight as shot making from Crystal Langhorne, Loyd, and Bird tied the game at 42-42 as part of a 13-2 Storm run midway through the third quarter.
Just as the Staples Center crowd feared they would see another second half collapse, the life-inducing shot in the arm for Los Angeles came from the difference maker tonight—their bench.
Riquna Williams’ aggressiveness in the lane and on the glass along with Lavender’s crucial basket at the 3:41 mark halted the Storm’s wave of momentum and prompted a 9-2 Sparks run to conclude the third period. Los Angeles led 51-46 heading into the decisive final period.
In the fourth stanza, Parker and Ogwumike, who each posted double-doubles tonight, took over and helped secure the Sparks win. But it was Lavender’s tying basket in the third quarter, Williams’ playmaking, and heart on the defensive end that gave them that second chance at life to begin with.
“I thought we played very well defensively tonight. The other thing I thought we did a good job of tonight is we got 13 offensive rebounds, which is a high for us this year” said Agler. “Which gave us opportunities. I like that and the direction we’re moving so we’ll see how it plays out.”
The Sparks’ third quarter turnaround comes as a relief after garnering a reputation for letting teams back in during the second half. Most recently, they had blown a 10-point halftime lead against Chicago last Thursday to ruin their perfect 9-0 home record.
Los Angeles had also been outscored in the fourth quarter in 10 out of their last 13 games entering tonight’s contest.
Seattle’s Stewart finished with a game-high 23 points while Loyd was held to 13 after gashing the Sparks for 22+ points in both prior meetings this season.
“They just made shots down the stretch, got some calls that worked in their favor, and we had some crucial turnovers,” said Loyd. “They just executed down the stretch.”
With tonight’s win, the Sparks concludes its four-game home stand and hits the road to take on the San Antonio Stars on Friday at 8 pm ET. Meanwhile, Seattle returns home to face the Dallas Wings on Friday at 10 pm ET.