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Sparks win in season restart with Nneka Ogwumike back in lineup

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike sets up in the post against the Fever.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike sets up in the post against the Fever on Sunday at Staples Center.
(Steve Galluzzo / For the Times)

The mere presence of Nneka Ogwumike on the court Sunday was a big lift for the Sparks, who welcomed their six-time All-Star and leader back with a 75-70 victory over the Indiana Fever in a battle of last-place teams at Staples Center.

The resilient 31-year-old power forward savored every moment on the floor and logged 14:43 of court time in the first half alone as the Sparks built a 12-point lead before cooling off and settling for a 49-46 edge at intermission.

Ogwumike finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes in her first game back from a Grade 2 knee sprain that sidelined her for more than a month. Add in the Olympic break (she was left off the Team USA roster for the third time, then was denied an exemption to play for Nigeria) and the WNBA veteran had not played in 10 weeks.

Although she showed subtle signs of rust, the WNBPA president and 2016 league MVP made an impact far beyond the stat sheet.

“It feels great to be back,” said Ogwumike, who capped her performance with a transition layup at the final buzzer.

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“Not having played in a long time my mindset was to have fun and help my team win. This is the longest I’ve sat out due to injury. I’ve been doing a lot of lifting. I’m not as swift as I’d like to be but what never dropped off was my communication with my team. It’s nice to put words to action.”

Sparks leader Nneka Ogwumike has fought off self-doubt and worked through an injury in hopes of helping herself and the team “rise from the ashes.”

Brittney Sykes drained a three-pointer for the first basket of the game and wound up with a team-high 16 points, center Amanda Zahui B had 13 points and point guard Erica Wheeler added 12 for the Sparks, who entered the contest sixth in the Western Conference but only two and a half games out of a playoff spot. The result snapped a six-game losing streak for Los Angeles (7-13), which last saw action July 10 against Minnesota at the L.A. Convention Center.

Ogwumike was averaging 16.4 points and seven rebounds per game before her injury.

“For her, that was rusty, but to play 31 minutes and get to the paint as many times as she did and not go to the free-throw line is strange,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “She’s not like any player I’ve seen. Defensively, she was great … rebounding, passing and starting plays, which was nice to see.”

Kelsey Mitchell (20 points) paced the Fever (4-17), who began the day in the Eastern Conference cellar and dropped to 1-9 on the road. The Sparks won the teams’ prior meeting 98-63 on June 3.

Jasmine Walker and Chiney Ogwumike (Nneka’s younger sister) both sat out the game with right knee injuries. Maria Vadeeva was also inactive for L.A.

“I love playing with Nneka — she’s one of the best players on this earth and an even better person,” Zahui B said. “To share the floor with her is a blessing. We’re a different team with her. The ball is on the way to Nneka and she already has three people on her, which opens up shots for everyone else.”

The Sparks have won 16 consecutive home games at Staples Center.

“This is home … Staples is where it’s at for us,” Ogwumike said. “I didn’t have any expectations, just be in the moment. That last play … getting that basket was symbolic of me finishing things out. I wanted to put my stamp on that game and I was able to do that.”

The Sparks are back in action Tuesday night against the Atlanta Dream at Staples Center.


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