On Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Convention Center, 5-foot-7 Erica Wheeler hit a mid-range shot from the left baseline over 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner with 8.9 seconds left to put the Los Angeles Sparks up five over the Phoenix Mercury. A Mercury offensive foul later and the Sparks were able to dribble out the clock of an 85-80 victory.
Wheeler was the heroine, scoring 10 of the Sparks’ 17 fourth-quarter points, but Brittney Sykes’ clutchness was crucial as well. Sykes hit a contested jumper with 2:55 to play that put LA up four. After that, Griner free throws cut it to two and a Kristi Toliver free throw pushed it back to three before Wheeler’s big shot.
Wheeler (18 points) finished with the first double-double of her career and a career-high-tying 10 assists. She currently leads the WNBA in clutch points per game.
“I’m a person and player that like pressure,” Wheeler said. “I like to be in situations that bring pressure. That’s my life. I had to overcome a lot of things so me being in clutch situations or pressure situations — that’s when I’m at my best. I take the challenge every time. My team believe in me. More importantly, (Sparks head coach Derek) Fish(er) believe in me.”
“It’s great to have a player that has that kind of (clutch) mentality,” Fisher said. “It not only lifts her to be able to accomplish great things, but it lifts teams to high levels as well. And we’re looking forward to being able to continue to have E in those positions as the season goes on.”
Griner scored 30 points to go along with 10 rebounds in defeat.
The Sparks snapped a two-game skid and improved to 5-5, putting them in fifth place. The Mercury (5-7) lost for the fourth time in a row and three of those losses have been by five points or less.
Phoenix was 21-of-28 from the free throw line, while LA got there for just six attempts, making four. A team winning in spite of taking 22 or more less free throws has only happened 11 other times in WNBA history. The Sparks were the ones who had the foul situation not go their way the last time it happened as well. That was on Aug. 29, 2019 and the free throw differential was 27.
Toliver added 17 points to the winning cause while Amanda Zahui B. was good for 15 points and seven rebounds. Sykes notched 14 points and a team-high nine boards. Bria Holmes also had a solid performance with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Skylar Diggins-Smith recorded 15 points and 10 helpers for the Mercury while Sophie Cunningham added 16 points in her first start of the season. However, Cunningham was called for a travel with 42.3 seconds left when Phoenix had a chance to tie or take the lead.
Mercury forward Brianna Turner hauled in a game-high 12 rebounds.
Griner hit key mid-range shots at 3:53 and 2:16 remaining in the third. Both put Phoenix up by one. Megan Walker then knocked down a three with 1:33 to go before the fourth that gave the Mercury their biggest lead of the game at 66-62. However, Holmes answered with a layup and Sykes followed with a 4-0 individual run that gave the Sparks a two-point lead entering the final period.
Wheeler scored seven of the Sparks’ first 10 points of the fourth and seven of the first 13 fourth-quarter points overall to put LA up 78-69 with 7:21 to play. Phoenix responded with a 7-0 run to cut it to two with 4:10 to go. The game was close the rest of the way.
The Sparks went 7-of-14 from distance in the first half en route to a 10-point lead at the break. They won without their best player in Nneka Ogwumike, who hasn’t played since June 1 because of a knee injury. Chiney Ogwumike (knee soreness) and Te’a Cooper, who was suspended for one game for leaving the sideline during an altercation, also sat.
“All you need is five to play basketball,” Toliver said. “I think everybody’s just embracing the adversity that we’re going through and wanting to step up. And that’s only going to help us down the road. When we get bodies back they’re gonna be ready and we’re gonna bring everybody along. I don’t think it’s a bother to anyone. We’re definitely embracing the fact that we’re all we got and it’s us against the world. That’s our mentality.”