LOS ANGELES (Sports Network, with additional reporting by Full Court's Lee Michaelson) - Kristi Tolliver poured in a game-high 21 points to lead the Los Angeles Sparks to a 76-69 overtime win over the Tulsa Shock on Saturday.
Lindsey Harding added 20 points and eight assists and Candace Parker scored 17 points and pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds for the Sparks, who improved to 2-1 on the year.
Glory Johnson had 17 points and rookie Skylar Diggins added 11 for the Shock (1-5) who were playing short-handed. Six-eight Australian center Liz Cambage was sidelined with an ankle injury and did not travel with the team; forward Tiffany Jackson-Jones was out with a stress fracture; and guard Riquna Williams was recovering from a concussion. But with three of their 11-member roster injured, the Shock were allowed to re-sign former Oklahoma University post standout Courtney Paris, who rose to the occasion with 10 points, three assists, two steals and a block in 17 minutes off the bench.
The Sparks, who had not played in the week since their 78-83 road loss to the Silver Stars last weekend in San Antonio, took a 7-0 lead in the game's first two minutes, but quickly gave much of it back in a low-scoring and turnover-plagued opening period in which both teams at times appeared a bit sluggish and out of sync. The Shock tied the game at 19 two minutes into the second quarter on a Paris hook shot deep in the paint and took their first lead of the game (21-19) when Paris knocked down a short turnaround jumper roughly a minute later. But Parker, who sat out the final minutes of the opening period and the early minutes of the second, reentered the game, igniting the Sparks with a 10-point quarter. She quickly restored equilibrium, driving the lane and dropping in a finger-roll layup, finishing through contact but failing to convert the three-point play after being fouled in the process. Toliver then took over, putting the home team back on top with a pair from the charity stripe and knocking down a trey fed by one of Harding's eight assists on the evening. Parker then capped the 9-0 run, picking the pocket of Johnson, her former University of Tennessee teammate, and dropping it in for another layup.
Tulsa chipped away at the lead, but Parker, who seemed all but unstoppable in this frame, followed a mid-range jumper with another layup, then picked of an errant pass by Tulsa's Kayla Pedersen and knocked down a long-range jumper to restore separation (36-28) with a minute and change to go in the first half. Less than a minute later, Harding gave the Sparks their biggest lead of the game, 10 points, nailing a mid-range jumper off a feed from Toliver, and though Wiggins shaved the gap to single digits, driving the lane for a layup in the final three seconds of the stanza, Los Angeles took a 38-30 lead to the locker room at the break.
Unfortunately, they also took an injured Alana Beard to the locker room. Beard, who had suffered a hamstring injury and missed the Sparks' last outing, played in the opening period, but went down hard midway through the second and was slow getting up, hobbling to the sideline after LA coach Carol Ross called a timeout. She did not return to the game and is considered "day-to-day," with what has been preliminarily diagnosed as a sprain to her left ankle, according to a team spokesperson. The seemingly minor injury is worrisome in the case of Beard, who missed much of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 WNBA seasons with the Washington Mystics due to series of foot and ankle injuries and underwent surgery on the same ankle in 2010.
The game's momentum shifted markedly in the early minutes of the third quarter, as the Shock mounted a 9-1 run to launch the second half, knotting the score at 39 apiece on a Wiggins layup a little more than two minutes into the period. The Sparks battled their way back into it, but the period was marked by more chippiness than productivity. Parker put the Sparks back up by six with a layup (her only bucket of the period) at the 4:14 mark of the third. As she trotted back down the floor, exhorting the crowd to get into it, Wiggins, who was burned three times in the quarter when Sparks defenders picked off her errant passes, interrupted the celebration by bumping into Parker, apparently intentionally. Words were exchanged but the referees missed the call. Minutes later, Parker returned the favor, unnecessarily colliding with Wiggins; this time, the officials witnessed the interaction, whistling Parker for an offensive foul, her second and the Sparks' third of the quarter. Parker vehemently protested the perceived disparity in treatment and was warned by the ref, with Ebony Hoffman ultimately intervening to save her teammate from what seemed to be escalating toward a technical foul, but Parker continued to appear distracted by the physicality and jawboning on the floor and frustration with the calls. By the time the quarter ended, the Sparks were clinging to a one-point (49-48) lead, having been outscored 18-11 in the period.
Tulsa outscored LA in the final quarter of regulation as well, but by a narrower 18-17 margin, fueled by a nine-point outpouring by Jennifer Lacy who came off the bench to knock down four of her five attempts in the period, including one three-pointer and several long twos. The Sparks trailed for most of the fourth quarter, and were still down five (59-64) with 2:02 to go when Parker picked up her fourth personal and Johnson converted one of the pair from the penalty stripe. But Coleman and Toliver kept the Sparks' hopes alive, book-ending a Johnson layup with a pair of three-pointers to put Los Angeles within one (65-66) with under a minute remaining. Parker knocked down a free throw with 13.9 seconds left and Diggins missed a layup at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.
The Sparks clamped down defensively in the bonus period, holding the Shock to just three points on 1-of-6 shooting from the floor with Tulsa's lone field-goal coming on a Kayla Pedersen layup with 3:22 to go. But the fiercely physical play and contentiousness persisted in a game in which the teams combined for more turnovers (41) and personal fouls (39) than field goals (55), and with only 1.6 seconds left to play and the outcome evident, Wiggins, who had yet another bad pass picked off, and Harding, who coughed up the rock four times herself, chattered their way into a double technical.
Despite the outcome, Shock coach Gary Kloppenburg saw cause for optimism. Noting that his team had done more damage to itself in the first half with turnovers and missed assignments than the Sparks had done to them, Kloppenburg said: ``The silver lining I get out of this game is we're battling and competitive with one of what I think is one of the top teams in the league with a chance to win in regulation."
"We couldn't get it done but I love the competitiveness, the mental toughness. We're growing each game," he continued, adding that though the Shock might not yet be a championship-caliber squad, this could be the year they make the playoffs for the first time since the franchise landed in Tulsa.
Kloppenburg was high in his praise for rookie point guard Skylar Diggins. "She's getting an education by fire,'' Kloppenburg said. ``It's a totally different game -- the college game to the pro game -- learning the screen-and-roll, learning all the nuances of playing point guard." But noting that Diggins had held her own in nose-to-nose matchups with the Sparks' Lindsay Harding and the Seattle Storm's Tameka Johnson, whom he described as "two of the best point guards in the WNBA," he added, "The thing we love about her is she's a competitor. She wants to win. She's going to find a way to win. I think as she develops that experience that she's getting she's going to be an excellent point guard in this league."
Kloppenburg also extolled the contributions of Courtney Paris, whom the Shock had cut late in training camp to get down to their 11-player roster: "We didn’t want to cut her. And then Liz [Cambage] decided to come back over, so there was just kind of a situation where we couldn’t keep another big. What happens after this week with people coming back from injuries I don’t know, but she belongs in this league."
Sparks coach Carol Ross had mixed reviews for her squad's play. Acknowledging that the Sparks, who had entered the game boasting a league-best 52.8-percent field-goal shooting percentage, had knocked down only 28 of their 63 (44.4 percent) of their attempts from the floor in Saturday's game, Ross said: "You aren't always going to shoot the ball well. I don't think we shot well all night. We had some great individual plays. We had some play makers who stepped up and made things happen. It was hard for us to execute and you have to give Tulsa a lot of credit. A good defense keeps you from playing your sets and patterns and that's what they did tonight. It was just one of those nights."
At the same time, Ross expressed pride in her own team's defense and resilience, especially late in the game. "I liked that we found ways to make plays. Clearly fatigue was a factor for both teams. We found ourselves in some tough situations with this matchup but we dug down deep and were able to take a tough week of practice and apply it in those last five minutes."
Nneka Ogwumike, who posted eight points, including a layup that was pivotal in putting Los Angeles in striking distance during the final two minutes of regulation, and five rebounds on Saturday despite being hampered by five personal fouls, noted that late-game play had been a point of emphasis for the Sparks in this week's practices. "I think we did a good job in practice. We worked on end-of-game scenarios. We capitalized on understanding that we needed to get defensive stops and turned things [around] offensively. We were less than stellar towards the end of the third and some of the fourth quarter offensively. But we thrive on the pressure and we kept our poise. We tried our best to be as efficient as we could in such little time."
The Sparks have another long layoff this coming week before heading to Phoenix to take on the Mercury at 7:00 p.m. PDT Friday. The Shock, who have played six games already in the two-week-old season, five of them on the road, return home to Tulsa, where they will host the reigning conference champion Minnesota Lynx on Friday at 7:00 p.m. CDT.