LOS ANGELES — Nneka Ogwumike scored 20 points and grabbed five rebounds, before being serenaded with MVP chants by 10,000 fans at summer camp day, as the Sparks closed a seven-game homestand with an 85-78 victory over the Atlanta Dream on Thursday afternoon at Crypto.com Arena.
Ogwumike followed her 35-point performance against the Indiana Fever on Tuesday night by going 9 for 11 from the field and making both of her attempts from 3-point range against Atlanta. The 6-foot-2 All-Star made a 3-pointer with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter to give the Sparks an 83-70 lead.
Aari McDonald scored the next six points for the Dream, but Chiney Ogwumike made a key steal with less than a minute to play and Jordin Canada made two free throws at 33.9 for a nine-point lead.
The Sparks (12-14) moved into sole possession of sixth place in the tightly packed WNBA standings with 10 games left in the regular season. The top eight teams in the 12-team league make the playoffs.
Four of five Sparks starters scored in double figures. In addition to Nneka’s 20 points, her sister Chiney Ogwumike scored a season-high 15 points and had a team-high seven rebounds (five offensive).
“I just know that I’m playing free. I’ll make mistakes. I’m cool with making mistakes because I know that means I’m growing,” Chiney Ogwumike explained.
Brittney Sykes and Katie Lou Samuelson each added 12 points for the Sparks, who won their second straight to finish the homestand at 4-3.
Atlanta (12-15) was led by guard Tiffany Hayes, who scored nine of her 18 points in the second quarter but was helped off the court after a collision with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter. McDonald (7 for 9 from the field) also scored 18 points off the bench, while rookie Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft, finished with 10 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Cheyenne Parker added 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Sparks guard Chennedy Carter played in her first game since July 1, after suffering a knee injury. Carter got in the scoring column early with three-point plays on two straight possessions to push the Sparks to a 26-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. She finished with seven points in 12 minutes off the bench, including going coast-to-coast for a layup to beat the halftime buzzer for a 52-42 halftime lead.
“I thought (Carter) did a great job getting to the rim,” Williams said. “I was very pleased with her play.”
In the third quarter, Carter’s pass to guard Canada (six points, seven assists) for a fast-break layup forced the Dream to call timeout with the Sparks ahead, 62-50.
In the fourth quarter, McDonald and Hayes made a push cutting the Sparks’ lead to five but Chiney Ogwumike’s 3-pointer put the Sparks up 69-61 with 7:49 left in the fourth quarter. Howard, who finished 2 for 14 from the field, scored to pull Atlanta within 78-70, but she missed a 3-point attempt on the next possession and the Sparks pulled away.
Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams was asked to pinpoint what it would take for his team to get a win against the Dream before the game.
“Transition defense,” Williams said. “Stop the ball, stop transition points. Atlanta is a good team at getting runs quickly. I think when you look at the stats, Tiffany Hayes does a great job in transition scoring.”
The Sparks’ defense followed Williams’ game plan and held the Dream to just eight fast-break points, while the hosts shot 53.1% from the field and 54.5% (6 for 11) from behind the arc.
Transition Defense: I asked Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams what will be the key for his team to get a win against the Atlanta Dream. @CoachFredW also shares an update on how many minutes he’s expecting Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter to play. #WNBATwitter #LASparks pic.twitter.com/CzLEakX6oJ
— John W. Davis (@johnwdavis) July 21, 2022
The game also marked the return of former Sparks guard Erica Wheeler, who was traded for Carter in the offseason. Wheeler finished with seven points, five rebounds and four assists against her former team.
“She’s probably beloved everywhere she goes because of her energy,” Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright said when asked about Wheeler before the game. “Her energy has been great for us. Her competitiveness as well as her leadership. I think she’s doing a really good job of tutoring and mentoring Aari (McDonald) and you see her development as well, so E has definitely brought some positive vibes to our culture.”
— John W. Davis (@johnwdavis) July 21, 2022
Sparks center Liz Cambage scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds off the bench in 16 minutes after missing two games after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.
“I’m still trying to find my flow and my fitness and my lungs this season but having teammates that push it and go hard, it lifts you up as well,” Cambage said, who described her third COVID case as mild compared to the previous two.
The Sparks play six of their next seven games on the road before closing the season with a three-game homestand. The Sparks play at the Western Conference-leading Las Vegas Aces on Saturday night.