Professional Basketball

Sparks Hold Off Sky Run to Earn Trip to WNBA Finals

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The Los Angeles Sparks staved off a third quarter Chicago Sky 15-4 run during Tuesday night’s WNBA Semifinal Game 4 to run out the clock on the Sky’s season and secure the Sparks first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2003.

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Chicago Sky guard Cappie Pondexter drives past Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during Tuesday’s WNBA Semifinals Game 4 at Allstate Arena. Photo by Amy Lugibih l /Sports Page Magazine.

The game, played in front of 3,841 in attendance at Allstate Arena in Rosemount, Ill., started slowly as neither team got into an offensive rhythm early on. Sparks guard Kristi Toliver hit a three-pointer 1:40 after the tipoff for the game’s first score which was answered almost immediately by Sky forward Jessica Breland’s five-foot jumper with 7:58 remaining in the quarter to give the Sparks a 3-2 lead. A jumper from Breland with 3:53 remaining made the score 8-4 in favor of the visiting Sparks giving fans the impression that it was going to be a low-scoring defensive grudge match.

Then Toliver struck again. She hit another three-pointer and then picked up a steal on a pass from Sky forward Tamera Young on the next possession, which Sparks guard Alana Beard turned into a layup. The Sparks used the series to gain enough separation from the Sky and led 13-4 with 3:21 left in the first quarter. They extended the lead to a dozen as the Sparks led 23-11 at the end of the quarter.

“I thought we got off to a little bit of a slow start, and I’m not that coach that likes to not give credit to the opposition. Obviously, LA had a sense of urgency and aggression,” said Sky head coach Pokey Chatman.

Sparks forward Candace Parker came alive in the second quarter scoring 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting and four free throws. Chicago committed six turnovers in the quarter which led to 10 Los Angeles points. The Sparks led by 28 points, their largest lead of the game at 55-27, when Parker hit her fourth free throw of the quarter after being fouled by Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot with 32:2 seconds left in the half. The Sky went on a small 4-0 run during the remainder of the quarter which ended with Jamierra Faulkner’s running layup with one-tenth of a second left on the clock to make the score 55-31 at halftime.

I think Candace was rested. I think she was ready to lift her team to a championship that she’s talked about, but also, she has a very strong supporting cast,” said Chatman. “I didn’t realize last game she didn’t score in the second half and I kept saying to myself ‘that could spell trouble if we don’t get on her early.’ But the great players step up, and that’s what she did tonight.”

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Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot is defended by Los Angeles Sparks guard Alana Beard during Tuesday’s WNBA Semifinals Game 4 at Allstate Arena. Photo by Amy Lugibihl / Sports Page Magazine.

The Sky came charging back during the third quarter on the back of guard Cappie Pondexter, who scored 10 points in the quarter while Breland and center Imani Boyette each added six. The Sky shot 57.9 percent in the quarter and outscored the Sparks 28-14 in the frame. Pondexter’s layup with 43.4 seconds remaining cut the deficit to 10, and the Sparks took a 69-59 lead heading into the last quarter.

“We were just hoping to keep going, setting little goals and trying to come into the first timeout with stops. It’s all about our defensive intensity, that’s kind of been the story of our entire season. When our defensive intensity is high, we excel, because we normally do well offensively – because we’re an offensive team. So we were just trying to make sure that we were being aggressive to them, and trying to pick up our intensity on defense,” said Boyette.

It appeared that the momentum would stay with the Sky as Clarissa dos Santos scored a layup 12 seconds into the quarter and cut the deficit to eight, but that momentum was halted when Parker nailed a three-pointer on the next possession.

Dos Santos fouled Parker behind the three-point line after a bad pass turnover. Parker’s three free throws pushed the lead back up to 14. Then Parker blocked Pondexter’s layup attempt and was fouled by Young after a Vandersloot bad pass turnover. Parker’s free throws put the Sparks up 77-61 with 8:19 remaining putting the Sky into the position of having to battle their opponent and the clock.

“They [Chicago] had a very heavy zone and that’s something that we struggled with last game and a little bit in the first two games as well when they made their surges,” said Parker. “A lot of the time in the zones you can get stuck, literally, without moving the ball with all the bodies in the zone and I think we did a good job of moving the ball and getting bodies in the gaps. I also think that we did a lot better of a job on our on-the-ball defense. We did a much better job of defending pick and rolls at that point and helping from the backside.”

When the final buzzer sounded, the Sparks were out in front 95-75 and will now face the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA Finals.

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Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver drives for a layup. She scored 21 points during Tuesday’s WNBA Semifinals Game 4 at Allstate Arena. Photo by Amy Lugibihl / Sports Page Magazine.

“First of all, congratulations to Los Angeles on advancing to the Finals,” said Chatman. “Right now it’s disappointing and hard to see the positive things, but I am proud of this particular group of young ladies for some of the things they accomplished as a unit after a bit of adversity. Credit to LA, but I am proud of this team for bouncing back.”

Agler understands Chatman’s disappointment.

“I have a ton of respect for that team. They battled extremely hard. They were shorthanded and that didn’t seem to bother their confidence or aggressiveness. I tip my hat to them and their staff. Pokey has done a great job with this team. I have been in her shoes before, I know how difficult it is to get into the tournament like this and then not have your team at full strength. It is a challenge, and she and they all should be very proud of their effort. I just wanted to make that known. I have a lot of respect for that team,” he said.

Parker led all scorers with 29 and Toliver added 21 points for the Sparks. Chicago was led by Pondexter’s 19 points while Boyette chipped in for 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for her second consecutive double-double.

For the Sky, it was a valiant effort. They will head into the off-season early with the other nine teams trying to figure out what it takes to get back into the WNBA Finals.

“You can always learn something…I can say I’m proud of this team. And that’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned. We’ve seen a lot of growth, especially from this one [Imani Boyette] right here, and couldn’t be more prouder than that,” said Pondexter. “It sucks that we did get to a slow start against a great team, especially in the semifinals. But we fought through it; we made it a pretty interesting series, in spite of everything, in spite of the people who didn’t believe in us. I’m going to keep saying it: we believed in each other and we were the third team standing.”

The game was Parker’s 28th playoff game without an appearance in the WNBA Finals, the longest streak among active players.

“It’s been a long journey and obviously we haven’t done anything yet; we haven’t accomplished our goal but we’ve accomplished one of them. I think throughout this journey I’ve learned that you’ve got to celebrate this stuff because you never know what the future holds. I’m proud of this team, I’m proud to be a part of this organization and it’s been a tough road but we’re here,” said Parker.

The best-of-five WNBA Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx begins with Game 1 at 2 p.m. CT on Sunday at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

NOTES:

Renee Brown, WNBA Chief of Basketball Operations and Player Relations, announced last night that she is stepping down from her post effective October 20. She has been with the league since its inaugural season 20 years ago. Brown began her stint with the league as director of player personnel and the chief of basketball operations title was added to her position in 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

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