Aces seize control in second half to beat short-handed Sparks

Los Angeles Sparks Forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) argues a call against the Phoenix Mercury during a WNBA basketball game, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Los Angeles. Sparks won 94-71.(AP Photo/Jeff Lewis)

When asked how the Sparks were going to prepare for the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, Layshia Clarendon answered with her fists.

The veteran guard held them in the air and jabbed.

“Take the fight to them,” Clarendon said.

Short-handed and seemingly overmatched against the championship favorites, the Sparks battled to a 94-85 loss in Arena on Thursday, delivering a ringing early season endorsement of first-year coach Curt Miller’s rebuild.

Last year, the Sparks (1-1) would have folded in such a lopsided matchup, especially without star Nneka Ogwumike, who missed the game because of a non-COVID illness. Now just two games into Miller’s tenure, the Sparks look like a revitalized franchise.

“There’s no moral victories,” Miller said. “But as a foundational game and as a build process with us, I can’t be more proud of our compete and our fight.”

Against a team that won its season-opener by 41 points, the Sparks landed the first punch. Aces acting coach Natalie Nakase, who led the bench during the second game of Becky Hammon’s two-game suspension, called a timeout less than three minutes into the game when the Sparks’ swarming defense forced two early turnovers and took a 9-4 lead.

When the Aces (2-0) connected on their first haymaker to cut a 12-point Sparks lead down to four with 2:13 left in the second quarter, the Sparks punched back with eight consecutive points, including five from Chiney Ogwumike.

Ogwumike led the Sparks with 19 points. Guard Lexie Brown had 15 points on six-of-nine shooting, including a perfect five of five in the first half, helping the team to a 10-point halftime lead.

But when reigning most valuable player A’ja Wilson found momentum in the third with eight points, the Aces gained control. The lead still never grew larger than 10.

“This is a team that is bought in,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “A lot of people asked, ‘Who are we going to be this year?’ And now people are starting to see who we are: We are players that play with heart and fight.”

Wilson, after starting two for 10 from the field, finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Jackie Young led the Aces with 30 points. Former Sparks stars Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray returned to L.A. with 10 and 16, respectively.

After Parker shocked the league by joining the defending champions as a free agent, the Aces were immediately tabbed as a title favorite in the WNBA’s super-team era. On the opposite coast, New York is hunting for its first championship with Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones.

But New York’s debut fell flat with an 80-64 loss to the Washington Mystics on opening weekend. The lopsided result proved that early season hype isn’t enough to win games.

“Paper never wins,” Miller said. “It’s not the most talented teams that win championships in this league, it’s the healthiest teams.”

The Sparks, who face the Aces again Saturday in Las Vegas, have a long way to go until reaching full health. Point guard Jasmine Thomas, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in May 2022 while with the Connecticut Sun, has resumed contact drills, but has yet to progress to five-on-five work. Forward Azurá Stevens, the Sparks’ No. 1 free agent signing, is further behind with a nagging back injury, Miller said this week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.