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Kathy Goodman: Winning ugly is still winning

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Fourth quarter, we’re up by six in our game against the Sacramento Monarchs. First 4 1/2 minutes of the quarter, we’re pretty evenly matched -- we score four; they score three. An official timeout is called at the 5 1/2-minute mark, and we suddenly lose our minds. The play-by-play on the L.A. side of the sheet for the next four minutes reads as follows: bad pass (turnover No. 18), bad pass (turnover No. 19), lost ball (turnover No. 20), shot clock expires (turnover No. 21), bad pass (turnover No. 22). In the meantime, as we have been held scoreless, Sacramento has crept within one point. We call a timeout with just over a minute remaining in the game. I am not sure I will survive the last minute of the game.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was the last game of a seven-game road stand and we were going home to play five consecutive games at home. Minnesota had lost; San Antonio was in the process of losing. Everyone in the Western Conference was helping us. Now we needed to help ourselves.

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We had about 55 serious Sparks fans who had made the trip from L.A. to Sacramento. Our last home game was about a month ago and for these fans that was just too long to go without a Sparks fix. They needed a preview of what August held in store for them. We could not lose to Sacramento. We may have had our woes this season, but Sacramento was faring worse than us, and this was a must-win on our road trip. We had beaten the only other Western Conference team we faced (Minnesota) and we needed a win in Sac.

Nowhere is the chant “Beat L.A.” more robustly sung out than in Arco Arena. The L.A.-Sacramento rivalry dates back through so many playoff series over the last 12 years it is hard for an inaugural fan to keep all the games straight. L.A. may be ahead in the overall win column against Sacramento, but we have a losing record in Arco Arena, and this is a team we can never afford to look past. I had sent a text to Penny Toler earlier in the day, as I was getting ready to board the flight from L.A.: “The players are focused on tonight’s game, not about coming home, right?” She assured me that ours was a team utterly lacking in complacency -- every game mattered to them.

So, there was one minute left in the game. We were up by one. The first quarter had been so pretty. Candace Parker went 4 for 4, scoring nine points, six rebounds and two steals in the first 10 minutes. She had one fast-break layup that the crowd was hoping would be a dunk. As a team, we shot close to 50% and had almost double the rebounds of Sacramento. With one minute left in the fourth quarter of the game, I was nostalgic for that first quarter, when we outscored the Monarchs 21-13.

The second quarter had been a nightmare. I sat next to Candace’s husband, Shelden Williams, and daughter during the game. Afterward people asked Shelden if the baby had slept through the game. I replied, “She slept when the team slept, during the second quarter.” Our 10-point lead evaporated; we shot 16.7% and scored a grand total of six points (after being held scoreless for the first six minutes of the quarter). Vanessa Hayden picked up a foul every two minutes she was on the court. Going into the locker room at halftime, our 5-foot-3 point guard, Shannon Bobbitt, was our second-leading rebounder after Candace Parker. It was ugly.

I try to distract myself during the third quarter of Sparks games. Usually, they’re not fan friendly. But we had apparently gotten all that out of our system in the second quarter. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton came off the bench again to impress. In eight minutes of playing time, she scored six points and had three blocks and one assist, and it seemed to me like she had her hands on the ball for every offensive or defensive set she was in. Every game she makes a clear statement about why she is a force to be reckoned with in this league. By the end of the third, we had rebuilt our lead to six points and shown some signs of life.

But the fourth quarter had been, well, ugly. And now there was only a minute left and we were up by only one point. We had lost our lead; we were at the end of a long road trip; we had a banged-up squad that was not only missing Lisa Leslie, but also had Betty Lennox on the bench nursing an injury. Did we had one minute of basketball left in us? Nicole Powell had been lighting us up from the outside (she was 4-for-9 from beyond the arc), and Ticha Penicheiro had eight assists. We had one minute of basketball left and then we could go home. The only question left was whether that one minute was going to be played by the Sparks from the first and third quarters, or the Sparks from the second and fourth quarters.

The ball was inbounded after the timeout with a perfect pass from Delisha Milton-Jones to Candace Parker who was literally standing under the rim -- an easy two points. (Well, they made it look easy anyway.) Sparks up by three. Sac calls a timeout with 14.4 seconds left on the clock. I am just thinking, no three-point shots; no “and-ones.”

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Penny asks Shelden if, in this situation, we should foul (putting them on the line with the maximum of two points possible and then getting the ball back) or play defense. We unanimously agree: play defense. Michael Cooper does as well, sending his squad back out to play — and not foul. We don’t give up the three, but Ticha scores two for Sacramento, putting them only one point behind us and having to foul. They foul our rookie, Lindsay Wisdom-Hilton. The crowd in Arco gets on their feet, gets out the bangers and anything they can think of to make noise while Lindsay is on the free-throw line. The Arco crowd is feeling that a win is possible for them -- even if it is ugly.

Lindsay releases the ice into her veins and the ball into the air and makes both free throws, putting us back up by three with 6.4 seconds left. Sacramento takes its last timeout. Everyone in the arena -- and I am sure everyone watching the game on WNBA’s LiveAccess -- knows the ball is going to end up in the hands of Nicole Powell or Kara Lawson to attempt the three to tie. In the last 6 1/2 seconds of the game Sacramento succeeds in getting the ball to Powell. She goes up for a shot with 0.9 remaining ... and is blocked by Candace Parker! Sparks win 59-56!

It is our second-lowest scoring game of the season. We finished with more than 20 turnovers and fewer than 18 assists. We shot a collective 36.4% from the field. It was ugly. But winning ugly is still a win. And, boy, will it be good to be home again for a good long time.

-- Kathy Goodman

Goodman is a co-owner of the Sparks.

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