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Sparks vow to ‘just stick together’ after Liz Cambage departure

Sparks center Liz Cambage smiles during a practice session with teammates in April.
Sparks center Liz Cambage smiles during a practice session with teammates in April. The Sparks are trying to keep pace in a tight playoff race following her abrupt departure this week.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Sparks started the season with the mantra “time to show.” Center Liz Cambage, coming off an unceremonious split with the Australian national team before the Tokyo Olympics and moving to her fourth WNBA team, was credited with pitching the slogan to the marketing team and her teammates. With the controversial star gone, the Sparks have quickly adopted a new rallying cry.

“Just stick together,” Nneka Ogwumike said Thursday after the Sparks lost 90-80 to the Phoenix Mercury in their first game since Cambage’s abrupt departure. “It was another obstacle for us to figure out how we can stick together, and that’s really what it’s all about. That’s kind of been our motto this whole season.”

Trying to overcome the ups and downs of a tumultuous season, the Sparks are now trying to just keep pace in a tight postseason race. They hit another speed bump with Thursday’s loss as they slipped to seventh place behind Phoenix (13-16), which jumped from eighth to sixth. The Sparks (12-16) are tied with Dallas for the final two playoff positions, with Atlanta (12-17) only half a game out.

Liz Cambage abruptly left the Sparks on Tuesday as the team announced a ‘contract divorce’ amid a battle for a playoff spot.

If missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and then firing their coach in the middle of the season didn’t signal how dramatically the Sparks had fallen, then Cambage’s “contract divorce” announced Tuesday definitely will. Beyond the current playoff push, the franchise faces a major overhaul this offseason. Derek Fisher’s successor will have to clean up the mess left by the former head coach and general manager that has turned the once-proud franchise into at best an afterthought and at worst a laughingstock.

The team’s own Twitter account tried to make light of the situation Thursday, tweeting a graphic of the 54-32 halftime score and an emoji of a nervous smile.

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While Cambage was averaging just 13 points — her lowest scoring clip since her rookie season — the Sparks had built their offense on scoring in the paint with Ogwumike and Cambage. Facing the brunt of the Mercury’s defense, Ogwumike labored for 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists on six-for-14 shooting.

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike.
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike brings the ball up court against the Chicago Sky.
(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)

Interim head coach Fred Williams said he hoped the team could transition more to a perimeter-oriented offensive game this week, but that strategy took a major hit with three-point sharpshooter Lexie Brown injuring her ankle after playing just two minutes. She didn’t return, and the Sparks went three for 21 from three-point range, including an 0-for-12 start.

The Sparks are the second-worst three-point shooting team in the WNBA, at 33.6%, and take the fewest three-pointers per game, at 16.6.

When asked whether the first game without Cambage revealed any major changes required for the final eight regular-season games, Williams made a lighthearted remark.

Sparks guard Brittney Sykes hopes a shoe drive in honor of Brittney Griner helps raise awareness about the push to liberate the WNBA star from Russia.

“Yeah, just putting the ball in the basket, that’s the drastic change,” Williams said. “Win or lose, it’s a matter of putting the ball in the basket.”

Chennedy Carter carried the offense off the bench with a season-high 23 points on eight-for-10 shooting. The third-year guard was coming off a 15-point performance against Las Vegas last weekend, her first game after a knee injury kept her sidelined for three weeks.

Carter was one of the Sparks’ intriguing offseason acquisitions after the former Atlanta guard sat out most of last season because of a suspension for unspecified conduct detrimental to the team. Chemistry issues were a concern, especially with the combustible Cambage.

Sparks guard Chennedy Carter.
Los Angeles Sparks guard Chennedy Carter looks to pass the ball against the Chicago Sky.
(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)

But Carter is playing with something to prove.

“Playing for the WNBA, it means a lot, and actually playing for Los Angeles,” the 23-year-old said. “So to be out there every moment, it’s a big opportunity and I never want to waste it.”

Amid the dramatic season, Carter credited veteran teammates such as Ogwumike for helping her stay focused on the court and embrace her role of a high-energy bench player.

“I want y’all to know that we’re going through a lot,” Carter said, “but we got a lot of great vets, a lot of great leaders who are keeping our circle tight.”


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