Fired up Seattle keeps Los Angeles at bay

Carson, CA – The Los Angeles Sparks staved off what looked to be a rout by the 7-1 Seattle Storm Saturday night, but their fourth quarter surge proved to be too little too late in the WNBA’s showcase outdoor game at the Home Depot Center in front of a crowd of 6,026. The Storm reigned with a 79-75 victory.

The 1-6 Sparks, behind 47-63 at the end of the third quarter, clawed back in the last period and came within three points with 1:41 left on a bucket by Tina Thompson, who was fouled. But after a Thompson miss, Storm point guard Sue Bird made her fourth three-point-shot of the night at the 1:20 mark, and Los Angeles was never able to recover.

The Sparks’ Candace Parker led all scorers with 24 points and eight rebounds, and teammate Tina Thompson added 17 points. Bird put up 22 points and dished six assists, while Lauren Jackson and Camille Little added 17 and 16 points, respectively, for Seattle.

It was the second outdoor game in the league’s 14-year history, and it was promoted as a novelty game and a way to promote the Sparks’ “get out and play” campaign for the summer. Fans seemed to enjoy the venue as a change of pace, with some commenting that the small stadium created a more intimate atmosphere. But Storm Coach Brian Agler wasn’t completely sold on the idea.

“Lauren [Jackson] slipped on the floor real early in the game, and Candace Parker slipped,” he said. “I think it’s good on occasion to do something like this, and play outside. I don’t know if we’d want to do a traditional game outside, though.”

The Storm took control of the game in the first quarter with suffocating defense, limiting the Sparks to 26.7 percent shooting. They lead 25-12 at the break.

Seattle continued their defensive onslaught in the second, but Parker got hot, hitting teammates Noelle Quinn and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton with great back door passes for the score on back-to-back possessions. The Storm went into halftime ahead 39-31.

Despite a few good moments here and there, the third quarter belonged to Seattle, which dominated the floor. In the last period it was Parker who fueled her team’s run with a bucket at 4:20 to pull them within six, and an assist to Kristi Toliver less than a minute later. But the Storm gutted it out, and a Little bucket with 38 seconds left sealed the deal.

Agler gave credit to his team’s defense in the win.

“Our focus this season has been on the defensive end,” he said. “That’s sort of our identity, and we take a lot of pride in it.”

“I also think we’re a better rebounding team this year and we’re efficient – we don’t turn the ball over very much. When you get good shots on goal and your players are good you’ve got a good team.”

Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom gave credit to her squad for fighting back and not giving up.

“I did seem some mental toughness from this team tonight,” she said. “We could have buried ourselves in the first quarter when they took that huge lead on us, but this team – coming off a back-to-back [game] – I thought fought really hard.”

“We believed we could win the game. That’s something I hadn’t seen in the last couple games. I just hope people don’t count us out yet.”

Gillom also says the Sparks are improving.

“I think this team is slowly but surely coming together,” Gillom said. “It’s taken a little longer than I thought it would, but I really see some progress.”

Thompson said the Sparks have to pay attention to the details and make every possession count.

“We’re a team that works hard, but we have to become a team that works hard and plays smart,” she said.

The Storm has the league’s best record, and is off to their best start in the history of the franchise. Talking to players and their coach, the same themes emerged: continuity, defense and focus.

Tanisha Wright came to the Storm in 2005 and worked her way into the starting lineup. She said the fact that Seattle had been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round the last five years has weighed heavily on the minds of all.

“Each player on the team came in with a very different focus this year, because we’re fed up with getting knocked out early,” Wright said. “It wasn’t anything we talked about – collectively we came in and all arrived at the same place.”

Another factor is Agler’s player additions.

“They’ve really added people who fit in with the core group that’s been here – everybody’s clicking,” Wright said.

Bird, in her ninth year with the team, echoed those sentiments.

“Our record has been helped by the fact that we have the same starting five as last year,” she said. “Everyone’s very comfortable with the coaching staff, and the coaches have done a great job finding people to work with those who have already been here.”

Bird added that the team is “all about defense.”

Reserve center Ashley Robinson said the key is the Storm’s focus.

“We’re a focus team,” she said. “We work hard and play great defense, and our record comes from our focus.”

Agler said team goals are to win the Western Conference title and advance in the playoffs, but those goals are discussed only at the beginning of the season.

“Once the season is on, you take it one game at a time,” he said. “You can’t put the cart ahead of the horse, and these conference games are critical because they’re sort of worth double. Not only do you get a win but you give an opponent a loss.”

Seattle plays again tonight against Phoenix at home. The Sparks host the Mercury on Tuesday.

Photos: Sue Favor
Sue Favor’s Blog: They’re Playing Basketball.

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