Sparks’ depth key to 15th anniversary victory over Liberty

Game Updates: New York at Los Angeles, June 21, 2011

LOS ANGELES – It was everything you could want in a 15th-year game: a great loud crowd, a tight and close contest, eight players in double figures. And for the Los Angeles Sparks, it was also a 96-91 win over the New York Liberty, avenging their loss from the same match up in the WNBA’s first game on the same date in 1997.

“It’s a great honor to be a part of this,” said Sparks forward Candace Parker, who was 11 years old when the league commenced. “We owe a lot to the pioneers.”

Fueled on by a rowdy crowd of 10,389, the already-hyped teams got off to a quick start. Tina Thompson got things rolling for the Sparks, putting up a quick 10 points in the first period, including two long three-point shots. Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter scored nine of her own points.

The back-and-forth play continued, with most every player from each team slowly contributing points. The entire game featured 16 lead changes and 13 ties.

The Sparks were up 84-77 with just under seven minutes to go, when New York went on a run and closed the gap. With 44.2 seconds to go, LA was clinging to a 92-91 lead when Parker was called for an offensive foul. But DeLisha Milton-Jones stole the ball and threw it to a running Parker, who made the driving layup with 29.9 seconds to go. The Sparks hung on, and a pair of Milton-Jones free throws clinched the victory.

Milton-Jones lead all scorers with 27 points. Parker had 21 and 13 rebounds; Kristi Toliver came off the bench for 16 points, and Tina Thompson put up 14.

For the Liberty it was Pondexter with 22 points, Plenette Pierson with 15 and Kia Vaughn had 14. Pondexter was held scoreless in the final quarter, however, and Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom said that was a key to the Sparks’ win.

“We put Jenna [O’Hea] on Cappie because she’s one of those ones who you can tell to ‘get in there and stop that player,'” Gillom said. “We did a good job – especially down the stretch in the second half.”

Gillom said they have been pushing and running the ball both in practice and in games.

“We’re not just a half-court team anymore,” she said.

Pondexter, who took an errant three-shot in the game’s final seconds, blamed herself for her team’s collapse.

“I put my team in a bad situation,” she said. “I need to lead more because we’re so young. My challenge is to elevate everybody else.”

Parker said the depth of the Sparks is what pulled them through.

“Our team is extremely deep, which is why we’re able to be so successful,” she said. “In practice [scrimmages], it’s not always the starters winning.”

Thompson, 36, is the last athlete in the league who was playing on opening day 14 years ago. She said it seems both like a long time ago, and not so long ago.

“It’s a little weird to actually still be here,” she said with a smile. “There’s just a huge sense of pride in helping to set a great foundation.”

The Sparks now head out on a nearly month-long road trip, and won’t be back for another home game until mid-July.

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Sparks 96, Liberty 91

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