It was the last regular-season home game for the Sparks, but coach Brian Agler’s team ensured it would play again at Staples Center this year, clinching home court for its opening playoff matchup with a 74-66 win over the New York Liberty on Tuesday.
Chelsea Gray led the Sparks with 26 points as they overcame a nine-point deficit to stop a two-game skid.
“That’s like a playoff game,” Agler said. “You just have to grind out every single possession. It was good for us to go from a deficit to a lead and then hold on. We don’t get to do that very often and it’s great preparation for the playoffs.”
The teams played a close first half before New York gained an advantage just before halftime. Bria Hartley, Kia Vaughn and Kia Nurse all scored to put the Liberty up 44-35, though Essence Carson struck back with a three to keep the Sparks within two scores at halftime.
“I had to remind them going into the second half that they’re champions,” Agler said. “You have to play like champions. You have to go get it.”
The Liberty restored the nine-point lead early in the third after four missed shots left the Sparks at 17-for-48 shooting. But Candace Parker, who hadn’t scored since the fifth minute, hit a three before Nneka Ogwumike stole the ball and finished despite a foul from Sugar Rodgers. The Sparks tied the score four minutes later through Ogwumike after back-to-back offensive boards off missed threes.
On the following offensive possession, Parker took a pass from Gray with her back to the basket and two defenders behind. The two-time WNBA most valuable player flipped the ball over her head and into the path of Ogwumike.
“If she’s going to make passes like, that then I better be able to catch them,” Ogwumike said. “Her and Chelsea, they’re both such great playmakers. No pass is ever too difficult for them, so I’ve got to be ready to catch anything they might try.”
The Sparks entered the fourth quarter leading 61-58, but early in the final period, Hartley launched a three-point attempt that spun around the rim before dropping to tie the score. However, another three from Parker, followed by a steal and three-point play from Gray, gave the Sparks a six-point lead. The Liberty cut it to 67-66 with three minutes remaining, however Gray provided an assist to Ogwumike before scoring a floater and two free throws after a Riquna Williams steal to ice it.
Agler had two words to describe Gray’s performance.
“Big time,” Agler said. “Everybody’s seen what she’s done this year and not many players can do that, turn from a rotation player into an All-Star.”
The league’s top eight teams make the playoffs. The top two earn a double bye, with the third and fourth earning single byes. The first two rounds of the playoffs are single-elimination. The Sparks clinched a top-six spot with the victory, ensuring either home court in the first round or a bye and home court in the second.