Sparks get swept out of the playoffs

The Sparks were eliminated in the first round of the WNBA playoffs Saturday, but the loss may have earned them more respect than many of their past wins.

“No one expected us to be here,” Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom said. “And I don’t think anyone expected us to play Seattle as tough as we did.”

The Seattle Storm, which finished the regular season with the best record in the league, swept the Western Conference semifinal series against the fourth-seeded Sparks with an 81-66 victory at Staples Center. Seattle won Game 1 at home, 79-66.

The season was an uphill climb for the Sparks, who got off to a 1-6 start after the retirement of Lisa Leslie. Then Candace Parker and Betty Lennox suffered season-ending injuries in June.

“Overall, we encountered as many trials and tribulations as I have seen over the course of my career,” said Tina Thompson, who has been in the league since its inception in 1997.

Yet the Sparks, who didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the second-to-last game of the season, held their own early against the Storm.

The Sparks led by 10 points in the first quarter, but Swin Cash scored 14 points in the second quarter, including four three-pointers, to help give the Storm a 42-36 halftime advantage.

The Sparks reduced the deficit to two early in the third quarter, but the Storm rallied to take a 64-54 lead into the fourth, then never saw its lead fall to single digits.

“This team believed they could win,” Gillom said. “They didn’t stop believing that until they saw the score.”

Maintaining that faith wasn’t always easy.

DeLisha Milton-Jones acknowledged that making the playoffs “did seem like a longshot” after the Sparks’ record fell to 4-13.

Without Parker’s 20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds, Milton-Jones said the players had to relearn how to trust themselves.

“There was a maturation process that needed to take place on everyone’s behalf whether they knew it or not,” she said.

In their final game, three players finished in double-digits. Thompson had 18, Noelle Quinn scored 15 and Milton-Jones added 13.

In the end, though, the Storm was too tall, too rested and too deep for the Sparks.

Seattle outrebounded the Sparks, 34-27, and shot 47.5% to the Sparks’ 37.5%. Lauren Jackson, the Storm’s 6-foot-5 MVP candidate, finished with a game-high 24 points.

But even though the Sparks lost, they held their heads high.

“I’m really proud of this team for overcoming adversity this season,” Gillom said with tears in her eyes. “They fought until the very end.”