By Ashley Vollrath
Long Beach, CA — The defending champions, the Los Angeles Sparks, lit up the court on Thursday night, aggressively minimizing most of Phoenix’s star players to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, California.
Los Angeles forward Candace Parker came out aggressive, dominating the first quarter with 12 points and nearly missed the WNBA postseason rebound record of 11 in one quarter (she had nine), shaking off any lingering effects from her ankle injury to give the Sparks a 22-19 lead to end the first quarter.
“She’s a very talented player inside and out,” said Los Angeles’ head coach Brian Agler on Parker’s success. “It helps our team when she’s aggressive with the ball. It also helps our team when she cuts hard and is very difficult to defend. So, it wasn’t anything we just threw up. It’s all coming from her. She was energized tonight.”
The second period started off as a shooter’s duel between the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike and Diana Taurasi of the Mercury, with each making a pair of free throws to keep the game close. Led by the heroic efforts of Taurasi, the Mercury took a small 31-30 lead, but the Sparks pulled away after a 13-5 run, leading 43-35 at the end of the first half.
The second half began with the Mercury scoring the first five points of the third quarter, fueled by a Yvonne Turner three and a Brittney Griner jumper. The Sparks went on a 16-4 run to extend their lead by 15 points, 59- 44, with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter.
A three-pointer and a pair of free throws by Leilani Mitchell, paired with another jumper from Griner, minimized some of the blow to bring Phoenix within six (61-55) to end the third frame.
The Mercury turned on the gas, continuing their 13-2 run to start the fourth quarter, turning a 15-point deficit into four. However, Phoenix was unable to hold on, with the supporting cast of the Sparks (Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Odyssey Sims) making shot after shot to pull away from the Mercury. Sims capped the game off with a pair of free throws for Los Angeles, handing the Mercury an 86-72 loss.
Phoenix struggled all night to hold onto the ball, turning it over a total of 18 times and a gut-wrenching 12 in the final two stanzas.
“Once again, the better team won tonight. They’re just too fast. The second half really hurt us,” Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello stated on her disappointment of the game. “Obviously taking care of the ball is something we can control. I thought they were being too patient at the time. We allow them to get and roll on us.”
The Sparks are now a win away from returning to the WNBA Finals and fighting to become the only team in league history to win back-to-back championships twice.
The Sparks will be playing Phoenix in a winner takes all scenario for Los Angeles this Sunday in Phoenix. Whether Los Angeles can keep up the spark and sweep their way into the finals will hinge on the hands of Parker and last year’s WNBA MVP, Nneka Ogwumike.
If Parker has another performance like tonight — producing the best stat line in playoff history with 24 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals and three blocks — Phoenix’s season might come to an end. Yet on the opposing end, Taurasi has the ability to take over, she erupted for 21 tonight to lead her team.