Strong third quarter pushes Sun past Sparks, 76-68

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LOS ANGELES – Connecticut (6-1) ended a three-game West Coast road trip with a hard-fought 76-68 win over injury-plagued Los Angeles (0-4) at the Staples Center Sunday afternoon in front of a crowd that included Sparks owner Magic Johnson.

Led mostly by a group of young players, the Sun managed to overcome a ten-point halftime deficit with tenacious defense. The Eastern Conference leaders fought back in the third quarter to take control of the game. Sun head coach Anne Donovan mentioned her team’s confidence in winning home games before embarking on the road trip that also took her team to Seattle and Phoenix.

“We just seemed to get better with every game before we came on this trip. So I think by the time we took these three games, we had some confidence.”

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The Sparks were already without Kristi Toliver, Candace Parker and injured starting forward Nneka Ogwumike (left ankle sprain). Against the Sun, they were also missing guards Erin Phillips and Alana Beard. Phillips has a right knee sprain while Beard is suffering from a left foot injury.

During the first half, the Sparks seemed to have the fortitude to pull out a victory and break their losing streak. In the first quarter, they rushed out to a 10-point lead, 17-7, after a jump shot from 6-5 center Marianna Tolo. The Sun responded with a three-pointer from guard Alex Bentley but the Sparks continued their relentless offense with center Jantel Lavender leading the way. At the end of the first quarter, Los Angeles led 26-18.

Connecticut began the second quarter with a balanced effort from Bentley, forward/center Elizabeth Williams and Kayla Pederson. However, after getting with two at 8:49, the Sparks pulled away again with forward Farhiya Abdi contributing 10 points in the least three minutes to give the Sparks a 40-30 lead going into the break.

Connecticut’s veteran forward Camille Little took over in the third quarter. She began her offensive assault in the second half with free throws after being fouled by Tolo and followed up with a three-point jumper, a driving finger roll layup and three more free throws to finish the quarter with 10 points. The Sun’s defense was also key, wearing down the Sparks and forcing their opponents to commit six turnovers. In addition, the Sun had seven second-chance points in the third quarter compared to two for the Sparks.

Donovan was effusive in her praise of her team’s commitment to defense.

“We’ve aligned our defense to create a lot of things for us offensively,” said Donovan. “They’ve completely committed and you know you don’t always find that…twelve people in the locker room committed defensively.”

During halftime, the discussion was focused on the fact that the Sparks had “40 at half time and they average 55” said Donovan.

“We have a great defensive team, in my opinion, probably one of the top teams defensively and we got after it in the second half and I think created a little bit of a problem for them.”

The teams began the fourth quarter tied at 52. A layup from the Sun’s Shekinna Stricklen at 7:33 in the 4th gave her team the lead for the first time since the first minute of the first quarter. The Sparks failed to regain the lead even as they scrapped with 1:11 left to get within two. After Jennifer Lacey fouled Alex Bentley as the Sun guard drove to the basket, the game was out of reach.

The officials reviewed the shooting foul call, giving fans hope that the Sparks could have a chance to tie the game, but the initial ruling stood. Bentley went to the line and made two free throws.

Even with six wins under their belt, center Kelsey Bone and forward Alyssa Thomas realize that they have a long road ahead of them this summer and want to continue to quiet any naysayers about the Sun’s ability.

“We’re focused on each game and the eleven players that are able to play each game and getting out there and getting it done,” said Bone. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a long season left and we’ve got to figure out a way to maintain this.”

After losing their first game of the season, a home contest versus Washington, a matchup they felt the Sun should’ve won, both Bone and Thomas say the team is more laser focused on not squandering home games and fighting hard on the road.

“After losing game one, we just turned it up a notch and played even harder,” said Thomas, “and really locked down on defense, grinding out wins.”

Both teams had players in double figures. For Los Angeles, Bentley led with 21 points and five rebounds. Bone scored 14 points and pulled down five rebounds. Little finished with 13 points plus four rebounds while Chelsea Gray had 11 points and four rebounds. Thomas grabbed eight rebounds to go along with her five points.

Jantel Lavender was the only player to finish with a double-double: 17 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson scored 15 points and dished out 10 assists. Abdi and Tolo contributed 12 points each. Tolo also had six rebounds while Abdi had four.

The teams meet again Friday in Connecticut. The Friday game is the second in a three-game East Coast road trip that begins in Atlanta Tuesday night. Beard and Phillips are listed day-to-day and will not travel with the team.

By the Numbers

Points in the Paint: Sun 34, Sparks 32
Second Chance Points: Sun 13, Sparks 12
Fastbreak Points:Sun 8, Sparks 3
Biggest Lead: Sun 8, Sparks 10
Lead Changes: 6
Times Tied: 4

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