The Los Angeles Sparks powered through early shooting and foul trouble to overcome the Phoenix Mercury 79-66 in the first round of the WNBA Western Conference Semifinal at STAPLES Center on Tuesday night.
Forward Nneka Ogwumike led Los Angeles with a game-high 19 points and nine rebounds as the Sparks starting five all finished in double-digit scoring.
“It was physical,” Ogwumike said. “For me, though, I wouldn’t say that the quantity of calls necessarily equates to the physicality. I’ve probably been in more physical games, but everybody was fighting to the finish; fighting to finish the plays. It was intense.”
It was physical, don’t get me wrong, but you’d have to expect that at this point, especially with a team like Phoenix, she concluded.
Unlike the last three meetings the two teams had, it was the Mercury that came out looking like they had a game plan.
The Sparks struggled to handle Brittney Griner in the paint as Candace Parker (15 points, six rebounds) and Ogwumike tallied two, early fouls within the first few minutes of the game.
And though Los Angeles had good looks, the Sparks couldn’t sink a shot. Los Angeles finished the first quarter shooting 8-for-19, compared to Phoenix’s 6-for-13.
“Game went just like I thought it might,” Sparks head coach Brian Agler said. “These teams know each other extremely well and when that happens, and when they’re scouted well, it seems like the game gets bogged down some. I would imagine most games are going to be like this.”
Instead of the usual Los Angeles duo scoring at will, it was Leilani Mitchell who dropped consecutive threes to get Phoenix into scoring rhythm.
Despite its struggles, the Sparks only trailed by four by the end of the first frame, and the Mercury only stretched its lead to eight in that span.
“Offensively we weren’t very fluid, we weren’t moving the ball,” Parker said. “We weren’t really pushing the ball in transition either. When I looked, we only had four fast-break points and that’s kind of unlike us.”
Griner continued to make things uncomfortable for Parker, forcing her third foul in the first minute of the second quarter.
“Britney was playing at the pace she wanted to play at,” Agler said about the Mercury center. “And we thought that they were real comfortable offensively, so I felt like at halftime, we just needed to up our intensity a little bit and create some opportunities with our offense.”
Regardless, Jantel Lavender’s presence in place of Parker’s slowed Griner down and eventually the Sparks center tied it 26-26 three minutes into the quarter.
The Sparks finally took its first lead of the game off of a Parker three from the left corner with two minutes left in the half.
The two finished off the quarter in a 42-42 stalemate with back-and-forth shots.
In the second half, the Sparks flipped the script.
“We just talked about simplifying the offense,” Ogwumike said. “I think we were trying to be a bit too choreographed.”
Los Angeles came out on a 6-0 run and Phoenix was held scoreless until a pair of Yvonne Turner free-throws at the 5:53 mark.
Griner also ended up on the opposite end of foul trouble, hitting the five-foul ceiling midway into the third quarter.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “In the end, L.A. just had too many scoring options,The overall part we fought hard and I think a little fatigue was in there after all. We traveled a fair bit, but that’s no excuse.”
But just a few seconds later, Griner gut-checked Ogwumike in the paint for an offensive foul, the Mercury center’s sixth of the game. A few moments later, Camille Little fouled out as well.
Los Angeles pulled away in the final quarter, eventually pushing and settling on a game-high 13-point lead.
Mitchell finished 5-for-7 from three with 19 points. Griner had 18 points before sitting out, while the Spark held Diana Taurasi to only six points.
WNBA president Lisa Borders was also in attendance tonight to give Alana Beard her trophy for Defense Player of Year.
The Sparks face the Mercury again on Thursday, September 14 at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach.