LOS ANGELES — When it was time to step up on the day after her 32nd birthday, Sparks all-star forward Nneka Ogwumike scored 10 of her game-high 22 points in the third quarter, to lead the Los Angeles Sparks to an 84-74 win at home against the New York Liberty.
“It was a gritty game for us not really having any practice time,” said Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams. “A lot of it was bearing down and playing defense.”
With playoff positioning on the line, LA hosted NY on Sunday afternoon. Both teams came into the game with 8-11 records, with the Liberty in 8th and the Sparks 9th in the WNBA standings.
Afterward, the roles were reversed. The Sparks improved to 9-11 and the Liberty dropped to 8-12, giving the Sparks control of the league’s seventh playoff spot with six weeks to go before the end of the regular season.
With Sparks guard Brittney Sykes out due to health and safety protocols, Sparks guard Lexie Brown was inserted into the starting lineup and given the green light to shoot open three-pointers. Brown finished with eight points, four assists, four steals and three rebounds while playing a team-high 38 out of a possible 40 minutes.
“Lexie is an all-around player, who is going to have to play solid defense and a lot of minutes,” Williams said. “She stepped up to the challenge and with her outside shooting and her decision-making was great.
Meanwhile, Sparks reserve forward Chiney Ogwumike scored a quick eight points in the first quarter and finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 17 minutes, which was her second double-double this season.
After Ogwumike’s hot start, LA led New York 25 to 21 heading into the second quarter.
However, the Liberty pulled ahead 43-37 with 2:07 left in the second quarter after a 12-0 run powered by Liberty center Han Xu, Liberty guard Marine Johannes and Liberty forward Natasha Howard who hit back to back to back threes.
The Sparks trailed the Liberty 43-40 at halftime but opened the third quarter on a 9-2 run to retake the lead 49-45 early in the third quarter.
“At halftime, I told them to bear down defensively. Let’s overload one side and make them skip pass a great deal against our defense,” Williams shared.
With a renewed defensive spirit, LA outscored New York 25 to 14 in the third quarter, which put them up 65-57 heading into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Sparks center Liz Cambage paced LA with eight of her 16 points in the fourth quarter.
The 6-foot-9 Cambage, who also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out three assists, said Sparks interim coach Fred Williams has handled the transition from Derek Fisher well because he’s an oracle of the game.
“Having a coach with that knowledge to be able to put this team together and give us the right plays and give us the right direction and give us the right feedback. I’m the type of player that needs a lot of feedback and to be told by coaches, if I’m doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing.
“I think everyone feels really comfortable under him and he knows how to bring the best out of us all.”
— John W. Davis (@johnwdavis) July 4, 2022
Meanwhile, Williams said New York Liberty All-Star Sabrina Ionescu is a great, triple-threat player, who Sparks wanted to contain by keeping her in front of them and not letting her turn the corners.
The Sparks held Ionescu scoreless in the first quarter. However, she scored eight points in the second quarter and nearly finished with a triple-double with 14 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes.
“Lots of times when you think you have her trapped, she’s good at pivoting and finding somebody on the bounce pass,” Williams explained when asked to access Ionescu’s game. “Our game plan with her is to make her work on the defensive end and offensively just try to have a player ready to rotate over when she does get the basketball but you can’t let her turn the corner and get shots… she’s really one of those players that’s really good at catch and shoot.”
Meanwhile, after playing seven minutes in the first half Sparks guard Kristi Toliver was ruled out for the rest of the game with a calf injury.
Sparks guard Chennedy Carter did not play against the Liberty due to a left knee injury.
The Sparks will host the Phoenix Mercury on Monday, July 4 at 4 p.m. at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.