LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Sparks used both high energy offense and defense to rout the China National Team, 98-58, in their first exhibition game Saturday.
Candice Wiggins and Farhiya Abdi led five Sparks in double figures with 14 points each, while Alana Beard added 13. Shi Xiufeng headed up the China Team's efforts with 18 points.
For fans, it was a long-awaited glimpse of the new Sparks - the only WNBA team besides the Atlanta Dream not to have played a preseason game yet. Los Angeles made it worth the wait.
Rotating through several different lineups, the Sparks shot over 50 percent for the entirety of the first half, outrebounding the visitors 23-10 and annihilating them with assists and steals, while committing only four turnovers. They lead 54-25 at halftime, and expanded the gap in the second half.
Most telling was that Los Angeles racked up 56 points in the paint for the game to China's 22, and recorded 21 fast break points to zero for the visitors. It was a noticeable change in energy level for the Sparks, who have struggled with mental consistency for the last several seasons.
Coach Carol Ross said she was pleased at what she saw.
"I just wanted to see energy and effort," Ross said. "I thought players responded well today."
The roster currently stands at 14, including French Olympian Sandrine Gruda, who will arrive in Los Angeles Tuesday or Wednesday. Ross said that due to salary cap limitations, the Sparks will carry 11 players this season even though they are permitted 12. She said deciding which last three players to release this week will be extremely challenging.
"It's going to be so hard," Ross said. "Clearly, there's really a very small pool, and they all can play in the league. When you have a roster where everyone is worthy of a spot, it's very difficult to make those last cuts."
Returning to Los Angeles this season are veterans Candace Parker, Alana Beard, Jantel Lavendar, Lindsey Harding, Kristi Toliver, Nneka Ogwumike and Abdi. Having just returned from overseas, Parker had one practice in before the game, Lavender two, and Toliver none, as she awaits a physical.
Ross started Ogwumike, Harding, Abdi and Wiggins, who they signed as a free agent last month, and rookie Alicia DeVaughn. About half way through the first quarter, Ross switched out all five for a new lineup.
Regardless of who was in, the Sparks were running in transition, attacking the basket and finding each other almost every play. Veteran newcomer Armintie Herrington said there is already a lot of synchronization between team members - many of whom already know each other, or have played together previously.
"It already feels like we've been playing together for a while," Herrington said. "We just all have that same goal, to win a championship. So everybody has that high energy right now. It should come together real soon."
Wiggins, who was the key to many fast breaks, acknowledged that the Sparks seemed to be firing from all corners.
Herrington, who was an assistant coach at Ole Miss while playing for the Atlanta Dream, is a vocal leader on the court. Newcomer Brittainey Raven hustled for the ball and grabbed five rebounds, made three assists and a block. Rookie Nikki Greene put up eight points and pulled down six rebounds.
"There's so many lineups - you can go big, you can go really quick," Wiggins said.
Ross said the Sparks have an incredibly deep pool of talent.
"We haven't had a real deep bench, and this is as deep as we've ever been," she said. "We're going to have people coming off our bench that are starters. We also have a lot of unselfish personalities, and they just want to play. It's not about who starts - it's about winning ball games and....you've got to sacrifice to win championships."
Besides her emphasis on defense, Ross is preaching an especially proactive mentality this year.
"I want us to be real aggressive," she said. "I want to attack teams individually, collectively and relentlessly. I just want to keep coming at them. I don't want anybody to be able to take a play off. For any opponent we have, if they're not on their A game, I want us to be able to expose that. Whether we are running, or running half court. I don't want to hold the ball - I want bodies moving."
"You have to have a mindset that we should be the best defensive team. We have to expect that. If we're going to expect to win a championship, then we have to expect to be on all points defensively. What's been happening isn't good enough, so we have to amp it up."
Ross said lineups are still to be decided because players have trickled in to camp.
"It's going to be a work in progress because our rotations aren't going to be good for a while - we're figuring out who can do what," Ross said. "I'm not sold on any combination at this point. It might change, too - we might need to."
The Sparks play one more preseason game today, against the Seattle Storm. Ross said final cuts will be made early this week so the team can begin to solidify.
The first regular-season game for Los Angeles will be May 18 at home, vs. the Phoenix Mercury.
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