Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike reaches milestone in loss to Sky – Press Enterprise

LOS ANGELES — It was an impressive, yet unsustainable start for the Sparks against the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky in an 80-68 loss on Thursday night at Arena.

The Sparks led 17-16 after one quarter before the Sky outscored them 52-31 over the next two periods, handing the Sparks (10-14) their third straight loss. The Sparks shot 39.4% from the field, while the Sky shot 48.5% overall and 42.1% from 3-point range.

The Sparks appeared energized by the return of Sparks All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike, who missed their previous game, a 94-81 loss to the Washington Mystics on Tuesday night, due to a non-COVID-related illness.

Ogwumike finished with 16 points and eight rebounds against the Sky and joined Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker as one of three players to ever score 5,000 points in a Sparks uniform.

“I’m proud to have done all of that in a Sparks jersey,” Ogwumike said. “That’s really important for me. Legacy is important for me and to be in company with Lisa and CP, that’s really really huge.”

The league-leading Sky (18-6) found their groove during a 19-7 run to begin the second quarter against the short-handed Sparks. Rebekah Gardner, a 32-year-old WNBA rookie from UCLA, came off the bench and recorded her first career double-double with a career-high 18 points and 10 rebounds to pace Chicago on a rare off night for two-time league MVP Parker.

“With Candace, our goal was to really double up a little bit and crowd her a little bit and she passed a lot,” Sparks interim head coach Fred Williams said. “Her 11 rebounds is almost like points. … She’s such a phenomenal player, but I thought we did a good job of just containing her and making her be selective with what she does with her shots.”

Gardner hit eight of 11 shots, including several spinning layups and had four offensive boards and four assists while Parker was held scoreless for the first time in her WNBA career (ending a streak of 381 games) with 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. She finished 0 for 11 from the field in 27 minutes.

“That’s great,” Sparks guard Jordin Canada said when asked about holding Candace Parker scoreless. “She’s one of the best players in the league right now, one of the best players to ever play the game and the fact that she went 0 for 11 is just a testament to how locked in we were on the defensive end.

“The whole game we had great defense, but the second quarter is what got us and a little bit in the third but to hold one of the best players to zero points. … I think that’s tremendous.”

Ogwumike agreed with Canada about the feat, especially after Parker had 31 points and 11 rebounds against the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday and recorded a triple-double in just three quarters of work against the Sparks last month on the same court.

“To do that, I think it’s a good sign, it’s a good sign of what we’re all about on the defensive end,” Ogwumike said.

However, Sky coach James Wade said Parker still made winning plays.

“This is a game that epitomizes who she is because she can affect the game in different ways,” Wade explained. “She doesn’t have to score the ball to actually be effective.

“I thought she affected the game in other ways. She helped us get better and that’s all you can ask, especially when your shot is not falling, sometimes those days happen. It’s always great that if they happen in a win.”

The Sparks were without starting center Liz Cambage, who did not play, after being placed in the health and safety protocols on Thursday afternoon. Cambage is the second Sparks player in two weeks to miss time with a COVID-related illness.

Williams knew the team would miss the 6-foot-9 center’s presence but he was looking forward to strong play from the Ogwumike sisters. Chiney Ogwumike recorded her fourth double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

“Those two young ladies do a great job complementing each other with the high-low pass,” Williams said in a pregame interview. “Defensively, they’re in tune with each other and they’re just great leaders.”

Katie Lou Samuelson and Brittney Sykes each scored 12 points for the Sparks. Kristi Toliver started but only played nine minutes and did not return in the second half because of a leg injury, according to Williams.

The Sparks could not take advantage of Parker’s scoring struggles and still trailed 37-28 at halftime.

Wade said it was vital for him not to put any pressure on Parker in her second game back at the arena she called home for the first 13 years of her decorated career.

“When a player has been so great for so long, you let their motivation be their motivation, especially in a place where she practically built,” Wade said in a pregame interview. “I just try to get out of her way, give her the game plan and coach her just like I coach everybody else but at a certain point it’s a big trust that’s there and you allow her to express herself when she gets on the floor.”

The Sky maintained the pressure after halftime and expanded their lead to 68-48 heading into the fourth quarter.

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