Sparks start strong before falling to WNBA champion Aces

LOS ANGELES — The short-handed Sparks used a strong start to build a 10-point halftime lead on the Las Vegas Aces, but they could not hold off the reigning WNBA champions in a 94-85 loss on Thursday night at Arena.

Jackie Young scored 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting and the Aces took control in the third quarter, when they made 12 of 16 shots to outscore the Sparks 31-17 and take a 67-63 lead into the fourth quarter. A’ja Wilson scored six straight points before Young had consecutive layups to put the Aces ahead 61-59 at the 2:34 mark.

Wilson finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds for Las Vegas (2-0). A pair of former Sparks had a hand in the win. Chelsea Gray had 16 points and eight assists and Candace Parker had 10 points and eight rebounds against the team she spent her first 13 seasons with.

Gray’s pull-up jumper with 1:30 left gave the Aces an 89-79 lead.

The Sparks (1-1) were led by center Chiney Ogwumike, who finished with a team-high 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists on a night when the team was without her sister, team captain Nneka Ogwumike, who missed the game with a non-COVID illness. Lexie Brown had 15 points and five assists and three other Sparks scored 11 points.

“Fight. I want to see our fight,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said before the game. “Not only are we a shell of what we could be once we get completely healthy but now add on top of it that a percentage of our team is under the weather. … I just want to see whoever we roll out there with that we fight against a tremendous team.”

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Miller said Nneka, who had a team-best 17 points in their season-opening win against the Phoenix Mercury last week, was dealing with flu-like symptoms.

The Sparks jumped out to a 14-7 lead early, behind eight quick points from Brown. Brown scored 10 of her points in the first quarter on 4-for-4 shooting, helping the Sparks take a 25-15 lead into the second period.

A buzzer-beating 3-pointer by guard Layshia Clarendon gave the Sparks a 32-20 lead in the second quarter, but the Aces cut the margin to 38-34, behind Young’s relentless play.

Chiney Ogwumike swung the momentum back to the home team with an and-one and led her team on an 8-2 run over the final two minutes of the first half to push the lead to 46-36 at halftime.

Wilson, a two-time league MVP, scored eight points early in the third quarter to cut the Sparks’ lead to 59-57 and Young’s consecutive layups tied the score at 59 and gave the Aces their 61-59 lead late in the third.

Sparks point guard Jordin Canada, who had 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals, scored seven of her points in the fourth but it was not enough. The Sparks got within 89-84 with 59.2 seconds left but could never make it a one-possession game from there.

It was Parker’s first time back in Los Angeles in an Aces uniform. The two-time WNBA MVP left as a free agent before the 2021 season, spending two seasons (and winning another WNBA title) with the Chicago Sky before signing with Las Vegas before this season.

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The Sparks were inspired by Dearica Hamby, who started in Nneka Ogwumike’s place and scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds against her former team, less than three months after giving birth. Hamby joined the Sparks in an offseason trade with Las Vegas and then she said she had been bullied and manipulated for being pregnant. That led to a WNBA investigation and a two-game suspension for Aces coach Becky Hammon, who denied the accusations.

“She is inspiring to watch,” said Sparks reserve forward Karlie Samuelson, who is playing on a temporary hardship contract. “If she can do it, I definitely can be fine.”

The Sparks will get an immediate chance for redemption when they square off with the Aces (2-0) again on Saturday in Las Vegas. Hammon will return to the bench that night, when the Aces will receive their 2022 championship rings.

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