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Sparks: A good TV game

Today was the season opener for the WNBA. You want to win the first game of the season. Especially if it’s on television. But when you’re playing your first game on the road, in the arena of the team that won the championship last season, with a new coach and a new core group of players, well, you want to win, of course. 

But mostly you want to have a good TV game. When I showed up at US Airways Arena in Phoenix this morning for the Sparks' opening game against the Phoenix Mercury, I honestly didn’t know what to expect from my team. I had seen them a lot in practice and in our two preseason games, but this was a real game, against Phoenix, a real rival, and the team that had stopped our playoff run in 2009. I just had no idea what was going to happen.

Anyone who follows the WNBA knows the season-opening games can be somewhat rough affairs. Our training camp is a short three weeks, and many of the star players report late because they are finishing up their championship runs overseas.  Our complete team had played together for five days (except for Kristi Toliver, who we traded for on Thursday and met the team for the first time yesterday in Phoenix). Under a new coach, our players were learning new schemes and coming together for the first time without the towering presence of Lisa Leslie down low. I’m not sure they knew what to expect on the court today.

Within the first 30 seconds of the game, I felt more relaxed. Candace Parker tipped the opening jump to Tina Thompson; the ball made it back into Parker’s hands and she scored the first two of what would be 24 points in the game. I put a check mark next to Parker’s name on my mental checklist — she was ready to play. We started strong. In the first two minutes of the game, we tallied six points, two rebounds and one steal.

The next mental checkmark came when Andrea Riley entered the game five and a half minutes into the first quarter. I had seen her play fast and fun in practice. But this was with an official game jersey on, on ESPN, against Diana Taurasi’s team.  One minute later, Riley let the ball fly from NBA three-point range. I was sitting behind the bench, and I think Coach Jennifer Gillom and I had exactly the same reaction. We both leaned back watching and willing the ball, and as it dropped through the net for a perfect three points, we both threw our hands in the air to celebrate. That’s what we drafted you for, Riley!

After that, I just settled in for some basketball. It was a classic game of runs. We were up by four at the end of the first quarter and built the lead to six a third of the way through the second quarter. Then we lost our cohesiveness and defensive intensity, and Phoenix went on a 16-3 run to end the half up by seven.

Then came the crucial third quarter. The Sparks seem to have trouble in the third quarter. Last season we often came out flat and stood around a little until we really had something to play for in the fourth. It seemed that way again. Phoenix spent the first three and a half minutes of the half running their lead up to 10. But then the Sparks kicked into gear. In a minute and a half, with two steals by Riley and baskets from Parker, Noelle Quinn, Riley and Thompson, it was a one-point game. And then it was a nail-biter for the rest of the way.

Twelve minutes, eight ties and four lead changes later, we were down to the last 17.8 seconds of the game. The Sparks were down by one and called their last time out. I sent a text to Penny Toler that I couldn’t watch, but I did anyway. Quinn put the ball in the net and we were up by one with 4.7 seconds left. One last clean defensive stop. One nail-biting end to a great game. Phoenix gets the ball into Penny Taylor. (We didn’t want that to happen!) Parker fouls Taylor with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. (We really didn’t want that to happen.) Taylor sinks both the free throws to put Phoenix up by one. And then for good measure, she steals the Sparks' long pass down court to try for a last shot. Horn sounds. Phoenix wins, 78-77.

Well, we didn’t win. But I bet it looked great on TV.

-- Kathy Goodman

 
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