The Los Angeles Sparks defended the Staples Center with valor in their first home game of the 2018 season. Despite a slow start, the Sparks outscored a talented Phoenix Mercury squad 80-72.
Guard Chelsea Gray scored 23 points and nine assists while forward Nneka Ogwumike got eight rebounds despite having five fouls. Mercury forward Sancho Lyttle scored 20 points and seven rebounds.
Many members of the Sparks bench saw playing time in the matchup including guard Cappie Pondexter, who ultimately scored six points after playing for six minutes.
“We all have to commit to that same goal of having the same energy as the starters,” Pondexter said. “I think we’re learning to get there.”
Forward Candace Parker returned to the hardwood for the first time this season, coming off the bench with 10 points. The 2016 Finals MVP is recovering from a minor back injury and only participated in two practices with the team, according to head coach Brian Agler.
“She made some really good plays,” Agler said. “She obviously didn’t play her best because we’ve seen her best, but she definitely helped us today.”
The Sparks fought through an early seven-point deficit but trailed 20-21 at the end of the first quarter.
Los Angeles found momentum in the second quarter, which was enforced by shots from Ogwumike and Gray. Backdoor cuts aided the Sparks in outsmarting frontcourt stalwarts DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner.
“You got to try to move their defense,” Agler said. “If not, they’re just gonna keep their size around the rim.”
Los Angeles, however, struggled with turnovers. Lyttle also gave the Sparks problems, she led all scorers with 14 points by the half. Ogwumike acquired her third foul after blocking a shot by Bonner as the first-half clock wound down and did not see the hardwood until the third quarter. Yet, Los Angeles outscored Phoenix 25-32 in the second to lead 53-46 against the Mercury.
“I think size is a big key for us, we’re playing with two post players down right now,” Parker said. “I think it’s just about getting our rhythm and playing and finding our rotations.”
Guards Diana Taurasi and Essence Carson both received a technical foul each during the third briefly after Griner took a blow to the face from Parker. Foul troubles continued to haunt the Mercury, with Lyttle, Bonner, and Griner earning five each. This led to free throw opportunities for the Sparks, who earned 21 charity points.
Late in the third quarter, Phoenix Mercury tied the game at 61 by the hands of Bonner.
“When they’re in their half-court sets, they’ll run their stuff,” Gray said. “They’re efficient and they know what they want to get.”
The momentum that Phoenix had did not survive long in the fourth quarter. Despite the efforts of Lyttle, the Mercury scored seven points in the final quarter.
“I think we’re capable of doing great things,” Parker said. “It’s really fascinating to look around and see that every person can have a different game and step forward for us.”
Although they now have a 3-1 overall record, Los Angeles still await the return of their first-round draft pick Maria Vadeeva and veteran player Jantel Lavender returned on Tuesday.
The Sparks will battle against reigning WNBA champions, the Minnesota Lynx, on Sunday June 3, at 2:00P.M. in the Staples Center.