Sparks slip up with two seconds left as winless Lynx team spoils their home opener
The new-look Sparks turned to an old star, leaning on 11-year veteran Nneka Ogwumike for a team-high 22 points with eight rebounds, but they let Minnesota’s Kayla McBride slip behind the defense and score on a reverse layup with 2.1 seconds that put the previously winless Lynx ahead.
The defensive lapse was the symptom of a newly assembled team, guard Lexie Brown said. As was the Sparks’ broken last possession, when, down three, they threw the ball inside to Liz Cambage, who fumbled the pass. The ball dribbled out to the corner, where Jordin Canada launched a contested three at the buzzer. The 4,701 fans fell silent as the shot missed.
Coach Derek Fisher said Cambage, had she caught the ball cleanly, was meant to pass it to Brown to shoot. Brown, who tied a season-high with 12 points and four made three-pointers said she “couldn’t even tell you to be honest with you” what the play was.
Ogwumike said the close loss, the team’s second single-possession loss in their now three-game losing streak, felt like growing pains, especially as the team made its much-anticipated home debut.
“We were really fiending to get this one,” Ogwumike said. “L.A. showed out, as usual. I know they’ll continue to, despite tonight’s result. … But you know, after you have growing pains, you’re taller. So I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out.”
Tuesday’s game was the first true home crowd for the Sparks since 2019 as the pandemic consumed the last two seasons. The team that led the WNBA in attendance for three consecutive seasons before COVID-19 upended everything didn’t host a crowd larger than 5,000 last year. The Sparks’ attendance was the lowest in the league, in part because they played 11 of 16 home games in the Los Angeles Convention Center, which didn’t hold more than 1,000 people for games. Coach Derek Fisher and players expressed excitement about the team’s return to Crypto.com Arena.
New Sparks president Vanessa Shay will be tasked with boosting the team to new business success while contending in a crowded sports market.
But with pandemic restrictions lifted, the Sparks’ passionate fans filled only about half of the arena’s lower bowl Tuesday. Attendance at WNBA games has lagged in recent years, even before the pandemic. The fight to get fans back in seats is a struggle all teams share, Fisher noted before the game. The Sparks, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 last season, embrace the challenge to win back their fans.
“Whatever it takes to get more people to come back out, that’s the box that we need to check,” Fisher said before the game. “Most of the time that means winning, and in the city of Los Angeles it always means that.”
Coming off a blowout loss to championship favorite Connecticut in which the Sun outrebounded them 45-21, the Sparks again got overpowered on the boards. Despite 6-foot-8 Cambage and Ogwumike anchoring the Sparks defense, Minnesota (1-4) had a 40-26 rebounding advantage. Cambage had seven rebounds with 12 points, battling with Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles, the 36-year-old playing in her final WNBA season. Fowles had 20 points and 12 rebounds. Cambage hit a game-tying shot with 15 seconds remaining and had a chance to push the Sparks ahead but missed a free throw.
Five games into the season, the Sparks (2-3) are far from a finished product. Only three of their players played significant minutes for the team last year. They still are missing Kristi Toliver, a two-time WNBA champion who is also an assistant coach on the NBA’s Western Conference finals-bound Dallas Mavericks.
But the talent Fisher assembled over the summer has the attention of the WNBA. Players believe in his vision for a defensively sound team that relies on a free-flowing offense.
“We’re still trying to figure each other out, but I think what’s going to be our identity is the Sparks have always been a top defensive team and we’re still going to have that identity,” Canada said before the game. “And just adding an element of players that can create for others and we’re so versatile. I think that’s what’s really special about this team.”