After a rocky start, the Phoenix Mercury found what’s been working for the past 16 games, as it extended its winning streak with a 90-69 home victory over the Los Angeles Sparks Tuesday.
With the win, the first-place Mercury (22-3) moves into sole possession of the second-longest such streak in WNBA history and is two games behind the 18 the Sparks won in 2001. Meanwhile, the current Sparks team fell to 12-15, and Candace Parker missed her second game in a row with a left knee strain.
“When a team comes in without their best player, other players pick up the slack a bit more,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “They showed what kind of team they are. They have a lot of heart and a lot of character, and they played really well for most of the game.”
The first quarter looked like it might spell the end of the winning streak, as Nneka Ogwumike scored 10 points with four rebounds and held Candice Dupree and Brittney Griner to a combined 2-of-12 shooting. The star of the Stanford team that broke UConn’s NCAA record of 90 straight wins in 2010, Ogwumike came out with a block on Dupree on the second possession, and Kristi Toliver also found her with a no-look pass to give the Sparks a 14-12 lead. Toliver put the icing on the quarter with a steal and a layup.
“I think that what keeps us optimistic is situations like this,” Toliver said. “Obviously, it’s tough coming off a back to back and playing in an environment like this, but it’s preparing us for what’s down the road.”
The Mercury was able to regain some footing in the second, with Griner scoring eight and Taurasi seven. Down 27-22, Phoenix put together a 10-point run, highlighted with threes from Taurasi and Shay Murphy, to reverse the holder of the five-point lead that would become three at the break.
Phoenix would never look back in the third, outscoring the Sparks 24-12 and making a 12-0 run led by Dupree and DeWanna Bonner. Still 1-for-7 from the floor, the All-Star power forward came to life going 4-for-4 with eight points in the period.
“I had to pick it up energy wise,” Dupree said. “I came into halftime and looked at myself, and I needed to pick it up defensively. We were moving the ball offensively in the second half, and people were getting wide open shots. It wasn’t necessarily me.”
Dupree added the final six of her 16 and Murphy recorded seven of her season-high 10 points in the fourth, and Phoenix rode another dozen-point run to the finish line.
Taurasi finished with 17, Griner 14 and Bonner 12 points, while Dupree grabbed nine rebounds, and Penny Taylor dished five assists.
“We found energy within each other,” Mercury rookie guard Tiffany Bias said. “The bench really contributed, just making the small shots at the beginning, and at the end we were making big shots, so it’s nice to see everybody contribute.”
Ogwumike would leave with 18 points and nine rebounds, Toliver 14 and seven assists, Alana Beard scored eight points, and Jantel Lavender produced seven rebounds.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Sparks coach Penny Toler said. “Your mental capacity is even greater than your physical capacity, but sometimes as athletes, when you’re really good, you think you can do everything physically, and a game like this isn’t about physical strength. It becomes a chess match, how to conserve energy. If you make a mistake, they’re going to pounce on it.”
The Mercury will now face its toughest test at 5 p.m. PT Thursday when it heads to Minnesota to face the second-place reigning champion Lynx (20-6). The Sparks next host Connecticut Sunday afternoon, where Nneka will meet her sister Chiney for the second time, after the Sparks won 90-64 July 13.
“They are the champions, so they’ve been there, done that before,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We’re going into their home court where they play extremely well, so I think it’s a great opportunity for both teams to see where we are. We have the upmost respect for that team as we have for every team.”
The Mercury’s streak began with back-to-back wins over the Lynx in June by eight and 13 points. The next home game is at 7 p.m. Saturday versus Indiana.