LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Los Angeles Sparks were rusty to start the playoffs.
Coming in off an eight-day layoff, they fell behind early before rallying to beat the Phoenix Mercury 79-66 to open defense of their WNBA championship on Tuesday night.
Nneka Ogwumike scored 19 points to lead five starters in double figures in Game 1 of the best-of-5 series.
Candace Parker added 15 points while playing with five fouls. Ogwumike overcame four fouls. Chelsea Gray had 13 points, Odyssey Sims 12 and Alana Beard 11.
“Their chemistry you can tell is pretty strong right now,” Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi said. “They seem a lot more sure of themselves and they showed that tonight.”
Leilani Mitchell led the Mercury with 19 points and made five 3-pointers, both career playoff highs. Brittney Griner added 18 points – but just four in the second half – before fouling out with 4:44 left in the game.
“Some of the calls just didn’t go our way,” Griner said. “Next game we’re going to have to be on our front foot a little bit more and hope we get some of those calls.”
Beard’s defense helped limit Taurasi to 2 of 10 shooting for a career playoff low six points.
“In the first half, she got hit, knocked down and got right up and went and found D,” Parker said of her teammate. “She’s persistent.”
After trailing much of the first half, the Sparks pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring Phoenix 14-6 to lead 56-48.
“If it was one-and-done, we’d be going on vacation tomorrow pretty (ticked) off,” Taurasi said. “We’ll take this game in stride. We didn’t play great in large stretches of the game and we still had an opportunity.”
Things got testy with 28 seconds left in the period. Phoenix’s Emma Cannon and the Sparks’ Essence Carson were called for double technicals after exchanging words. Before that, Phoenix’s Camille Little was called for a blocking foul, with Parker on the floor with her legs in the air and her arms protecting her face.
Parker’s 3-pointer in the fourth gave Los Angeles its first double-digit lead of the game at 61-50. The Mercury closed to 70-63 on Little’s basket.
“I’m proud of how we adjusted,” Parker said. “I’m proud of our team and how we settled down coming out of halftime.”
Ogwumike completed a three-point play sandwiched around Parker’s free throw on a technical to Little that pushed the Sparks’ lead to 74-63.
The Mercury had to win back-to-back elimination games to make the semifinals for the eighth time in nine years. The Sparks came in well-rested.
Los Angeles, which won the final seven games of the regular season, appeared slow to start, falling behind by eight while Griner scored her first six points.
The Sparks didn’t take their first lead of the game until late in the second quarter on Parker’s 3-pointer. It was short-lived, and the teams went into halftime tied 42-all.
The referees whistled a combined 46 fouls in the game, and there were six reviews of plays.
“That’s all?” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “I thought there was about 12. The only good thing that came out of that is we got a bit of rest.” Brondello called the extensive reviews “boring.”
Sparks G-F Alana Beard received her WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award from league president Lisa Borders before the game. Beard led the league in steals for the first time in her 12-year career while starting all 34 regular-season games. She joins two-time winner Lisa Leslie as the second Sparks player to earn the honor. Beard also received $5,000. “There’s no one that deserves that award more than she does,” Taurasi said. “Her mental fortitude to go into games and have the hardest assignment every night is not easy.”
The Mercury have gone coast-to-coast since Sunday after winning an elimination game in Connecticut. The team bused from there to Boston and got on a plane that stopped in Houston before arriving in LA late Monday night. “I feel great,” Taurasi said sarcastically. “I had a couple beers last night and I was ready to rock today. We could have gone to Ibiza, we could have gone to Egypt, but we came to LA instead.”
Parker and Ogwumike combined for 5 of 13 shooting in the first half. … Parker rolled her ankle during pre-game warm-ups. … Taurasi’s previous playoff low was nine points.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Long Beach.