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Technicals aside, Atlanta’s smothering defense was LA’s undoing

Atlanta hosted Los Angeles Saturday evening as the two teams battled to the very last buzzer. The Dream earned themselves an early lead, but the Sparks refused to lay down as the game went back and forth. Atlanta’s defense was locked in and handed Los Angeles its second loss on the road this year.

Photo by Mary Holt

Atlanta, GA -- They say every great dream begins with a dreamer and Tiffany Hayes was just the visionary Atlanta needed for their “dream” of a 75-73 victory over the reigning champions, the Los Angeles Sparks, to become a reality.

Hayes finished the game with a beyond impressive 24 points, earning her the well-deserved Player of the Game award, despite a few hiccups including a technical foul.

Hayes joked about one technical foul laughing as she said, “Candace [Parker] did the same thing, but I guess mine is a technical, so I don’t know, I guess I have to ask questions about that one, but anyways, we’re moving on from that, I’m a good person!”

The game began with an early Dream burst after gaining possession of the jump ball. Last week’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week and Atlanta guard, Layshia Clarendon, who finished with nine points, a career-high 12 assists, and hustled throughout the entire game, exploded with a steal and back-to-back shots.

Right out of the gate the game was called tight as fouls were handed out left and right from start to finish, also including a technical foul against Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler. The physicality was apparent early in the game and never let up. By the end of play, 42 fouls had been called, and 51 free throws shot between the teams.

Los Angeles started the second half with a lead, 32-29 however, the Sparks ran into a tough Dream defense that allowed the home team to creep back into the game. Atlanta forced three shot clock violations in a row during the third period on the Sparks.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been coaching where we got three shot clock violations in a row, so that tells you that we have to rely a lot on our defense,” said head coach Michael Cooper.

It wasn’t just the turnovers that threw off Los Angeles’ offensive cohesion, as they also were called for multiple fouls -- and the level of play continued to get worse for the Sparks in the third. It didn't take long for Atlanta to take back the lead, and keep it, with many free throws sunk by Sancho Lyttle, Elizabeth Williams, and Hayes.

The Dream started to separate from the Sparks as they pushed the lead to seven after a Bria Holmes steal and basket, which caused Los Angeles to call a timeout. Even out of the timeout, the rhythm remained off for the defending champs. Tempers started to flare between the teams as Jantel Lavender received a technical. The only break from that was Meighan Simmons missed the free-throw.

“We have to work to build team trust which takes time, and it’s hard in this time crunch. We need to get together and watch film, to minimize mistakes defensively and get back into the rhythm offensively,” stated Alana Beard.

Heading into the final period, Atlanta had built a slight lead over Los Angeles, 51-44, but the visiting team wasn’t done competing. Despite a lackluster third, Los Angeles was an entirely different team thanks to one particular player: Chelsea Gray.

Nneka Ogwumike referred to Gray as “the head of the snake” for the Sparks and boy did she try to take over in the final minutes on Saturday and drive her team to a victory.

Gray continued to deliver for Los Angeles as she stayed in attack mode from inside and outside the arc – especially with under three minutes to play. Gray sank a deep triple to bring Los Angeles within one, 65-64.

Immediately Williams responded with a two-pointer for the Dream, but then again Gray launched another three-pointer that tied the game at 67-all. The back and forth action did not stop there though as Williams answered again to take back the lead for Atlanta, 69-67.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles, Gray’s next three-point attempt did not fall in; Hayes gained possession off the rebound and was eventually fouled 20 seconds later and knocked down both free-throws. With both teams ready to finish in crunch time Gray and Ogwumike continued to shine for the Sparks, while Clarendon, Hayes and Williams could not be stopped for the Dream.

With merely seconds left in the game and only a few points between the teams, Atlanta fouled none other than, Gray while she was attempting another three. Gray only hit two-out-of-three to bring her point total to an astounding game-high 25, but her team ultimately came up short as the Dream finished with a 75-73 victory proving that dreams do come true with persistence, effort, and a lot of free throws.

“It was a great win. I really appreciate my teammates and how we all stuck together until the end,” said Hayes following the victory.