Veterans led Sparks in the homestretch to playoffs
A powerful fourth-quarter surge propelled the Los Angeles Sparks past the Minnesota Lynx 98-91 Friday night and into a Western Conference playoff spot in front of a crowd of 13,154 at the Staples Center.
Tina Thompson led the way for the Sparks with 26 points, while DeLisha Milton-Jones added 24. For the Lynx, Charde Houston had 21 points.
Los Angeles needed the win to secure a playoff spot They were tied with Minnesota and San Antonio for third in the West going into the game. Their playoff finish seemed especially improbable given the beginning of the season, which saw the loss of star forward Candace Parker to injury, and multiple losses that kept them at the bottom of the conference for weeks.
â€œI’m just ecstatic right now," said head coach Jennifer Gillom. "It was a team win tonight. We knew that if we were going to make the playoffs, it had to be a team win.â€
The Sparks trailed slightly throughout the game, however, as the Lynx seemed to drive to the hole and score at will. Minnesota’s defense caused Los Angeles to settle for long-range shots, which they kept missing. At halftime, only four Sparks were on the scoreboard: Thompson, Milton-Jones, Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Noelle Quinn. Meanwhile, the Lynx had seven players in the scoring column.
Los Angeles ignited in the final period, fueled by tough buckets by Thompson, Milton-Jones and Kristi Toliver, who came off the bench and ended up with 14 points on the night. At the 6:03 mark, the Sparks took the lead by one, 75-74, and kept it.
Milton-Jones, who put up 14 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter, paced the Sparks. But it was Quinn’s back-to-back three’s with under four minutes to go that gave Los Angeles a 10-point lead, from which Minnesota could never recover.
"I told everybody to wake……up and let’s go," Milton-Jones said of her words to her teammates before the fourth quarter started.
"Sometimes you can get caught up in the rhythm of the game and you don’t elevate. Both teams were getting complacent at that point, but I told [the Sparks] that if you can take the momentum, you can take the game."
Lynx point guard Lindsey Whalen, who had 16 on the night, acknowledged her team’s loss of momentum.
â€œThey got quite a big run there – , they really got going," she said. â€œThey were good at getting in there and creating.â€
Los Angeles plays the Seattle Storm tonight in Seattle for their final regular season game. The Sparks will finish either third or fourth in the West, depending upon how they and San Antonio fare this weekend. The third-place finisher will play second-place Phoenix in round one, and the fourth-place holder will play conference champions Seattle.
Pre-game â€“ Sparks co-owners Kathy Goodman and Carla Cristofferson bring 14-year PA announcer Roger Gitlin to center court to honor him. He’s been the Sparks’ emcee for as long as they’ve been in existence, but he’s retiring now. Cristofferson is carrying one-year-old son Jack, who is wearing Sparks socks.
Tonight’s officiating crew is Clarke Stevens, Penny Davis and Roy Gulbeyan, who all seem to be a in loose and fun mood – quite a contrast from the formality of Tuesday’s referees. Stevens jokingly calls Gulbeyan "bro." Gulbeyan takes a moment to look at the rosters of both teams before walking to mid-court, which I thought was interesting.
Second quarter â€“ The play is so fierce that Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson and Alexis Hornbuckle are both jumping up in the air swatting wildly for the ball when they realize that they’re fighting for the rebound with their own teammate.
Lindsey Whalen has a great stink face, which she used on Penny Davis at least once â€“ she didn’t like the call on her. Whalen is a trooper; she crashed to the ground in the third quarter, smacking the back of her head on the floor. The crowd gasped, but she popped back up and waved it off.
Noting that Tina Thompson had nine rebounds does not do justice to them. Four of them were offensive, grabbing her own or a teammate’s missed shot, and all were crucial to tonight’s win. If the Sparks didn’t have Thompson this season, they would have a record like Tulsa’s. She’s amazing.
The Sparks â€œOld Skool Krew,â€ the over-40 dancers with style and flair, kick butt. They are a crowd favorite, and always get mad, mad applause. They did a funky routine tonight that began with Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation" that was probably their best yet. I love those funky women.
In the fourth quarter, Thompson drove, got the bucket and was fouled. She walked away nodding vigorously and saying, "yep, yep." She sank both free throws.
Shelden Williams is a nice father. He let his daughter keep pushing on his face, and he indulged her by pretending that she had some muscle behind those tiny little arms.
The crowd of 13,154 was really loud in the second half! It was awesome. Biggest turnout in quite some time, and good to see.
After the handshake line, Kristi Toliver did a single fist pump to the ground. Marie Ferdinand-Harris screamed something at Coach Jen Gillom and hugged her. Streamers plunged from the roof. The Sparks are in the playoffs! Good times.