The third-place Sparks felt the heat of the resilient San Antonio Stars in an 82-76 loss Sunday at the AT&T Center.
The Stars (14-18) moved to within one-half game of the third-place Sparks (14-17) in the WNBA's Western Conference. The Sparks have three games left in their regular season. If they drop to the No. 4-seeded team, the Sparks would play the West's No. 1-seeded team, which is currently the Phoenix Mercury, led by Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi.
On Sunday, San Antonio ended a four-game losing streak as Kayla McBride scored 21 points and Jayne Appel tied a franchise record with 20 rebounds.
The Sparks' frontcourt of Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Jantel Lavender finished with a combined 19 rebounds.
Ogwumike scored 18 points, Lavender added 15 and Alana Beard had 13 for the Sparks. Parker, who had 26 points in an overtime win over Tulsa on Friday, was limited to seven points on three-for-12 shooting.
Becky Hammon, who had nine points and three assists, drained a three-point shot with 26 seconds remaining to give San Antonio a 78-74 lead.
"Missed defensive assignment, obviously," Sparks Coach Penny Toler said. "At the end of the day, I don't want to blame one person. It's unfortunate that it came down to that. Obviously, when Becky comes in, you know what she's coming in to do."
McBride helped close out the win with two free throws.
"I think we got a little bit of a monkey off our back after that four-game losing streak," McBride said. "I don't think we were playing well consistently. I think today they had their runs, but we were consistent, defensively and offensively. That's what we need to be all the time. That's the type of team we are, we're very team oriented. We don't have superstars like that. We have to come in and play together and I think we did that today, that's why were so successful."
Sophia Young-Malcolm and Danielle Robinson had 14 points apiece, and Jia Perkins added 12 for San Antonio.
Appel had 13 defensive rebounds and eight points on four-for-seven shooting. Her production was especially critical after the Stars lost Danielle Adams, who left the game midway through the first quarter because of concussion-like symptoms after hitting her head on the court as she took a charge.
"Coach told us at the beginning of the game, he challenged us to get every rebound," Appel said. "The first one, the second one, the third one. That's something that, especially with this team being so big, Los Angeles, that the post can really focus on and really go to work on. It was definitely a focus from the beginning of the game for us."
Perkins made a floating jump shot in the lane with a minute remaining to give San Antonio a 75-74 lead and Robinson stole a pass on the ensuing trip.
"I think that's been something that we've struggled with throughout the year, is being inconsistent throughout the game," Ogwumike said. "It can even get down to 38 minutes, and then the last two minutes we have to be able to capitalize on those types of opportunities. These close games going into the playoffs, it's going to be a playoff atmosphere, and that's what we need to expect and be ready to play against."
McBride converted a three-point play to give San Antonio a 54-43 lead with 3:34 left in the third quarter. Ogwumike responded by scoring eight of the Sparks' final 13 points of the third to cut the lead to 61-56.
The run continued with Harding hitting a jump shot to put the Sparks ahead 66-65 with 4:48. There were five lead changes after that basket capped by Perkins' jump shot.