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At last, a road win for the Sparks

July 13, 2010 |  8:41 pm

I am sure ESPN had a different game in mind when they scheduled the Sparks-Tulsa Shock matchup as the game to tip off the second half of the WNBA’s Western Conference schedule Tuesday night.  The  Sparks and Shock, when they were in Detroit, developed a deep rivalry, and the teams always played a tough physical game.  But the rivalry was built in part on the longstanding NBA rivalry of coaches Michael Cooper and Bill Laimbeer, neither of whom remained at the helm of their respective franchises.  The rivalry was fueled by an on-court altercation between Candace Parker and Plenette Pierson, neither of whom appeared in Tuesday night’s game: Candace home in L.A. rehabbing her shoulder and Plenette traded to New York.  The rivalry was personified by the finesse of Lisa Leslie and the power of Cheryl Ford, both sidelined this season — one to retirement and one to injury. 

Instead, ESPN had as its Tuesday night matchup the fifth-place Sparks against the sixth-place Shock, but it turned out to have its own moments.  For the Sparks, it meant our first road win, 87-71, and another chance to move up in the Western Conference standings.

It was the Sparks first trip to BOK Center, the Tulsa Shock’s home arena.  The Tulsa team may not have a winning record, but they definitely have a loyal fan base — the arena was a sea of gold shirts, everyone wearing their team’s colors.  But, as usual on the road, there was a hefty crew of Sparks supporters, many of whom came to support Andrea Riley, carrying over their loyalty from her Oklahoma State days.  We sat in front of a group of Shock fans, proudly wearing their gold, but cheering for Riley when she got in the game.  They couldn’t help but display their divided loyalties.  When she had the ball in her hands on her first play, they taunted her a little, yelling, “Shoot, Riley!” playing on her penchant for being a shoot-first, pass-second point guard.  Well, she stepped back and shot it from way outside the three-point line and down it went, nothing but net.  Penny Toler, who was next to me, turned to the fans and said, “Well, you wanted it!”  Riley went on to score 14 points in her 16 minutes on the floor.

It wasn’t a great win by the Sparks, but it was a necessary win.  I can’t really applaud our defensive effort — we were outrebounded, and got killed on the offensive glass (17-9).  But we did what we needed to do to get a win against Tulsa — didn’t get rattled by their scoring flurries, got some stops when we needed to and never let up on our offensive output.  Five of our nine players scored in double digits, with Tina Thompson leading the way with 24 points, and Ticha Penicheiro racked up nine assists.  We started the game fast, with an 11-4 run, and led at the end of the first quarter by four.  We fell back a little in the second quarter, letting the Shock take the lead, but we avoided the third-quarter slump the Sparks have often fallen into, outscoring the Shock by 15 in the third, and we were not content to sit on our lead going into the last 10 minutes. 

Instead of showing fatigue as the game wore on, we poured it on, shooting over 63% in the second half and outscoring the Shock by 21 points.  We had a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter and never let the Shock get closer than that, ultimately pushing the lead up to 20 with a minute and a half left in the game.  We needed this win; we needed this momentum.  The team is on the road for the rest of July, with only our Camp Day game on the afternoon of July 20 at home, and it is great psychologically (and for our playoff hopes) to start the trip with our first road win. 

We have made all the arguments during the first half of the season as to why we are not out of the running for a playoff spot, with the West so wide open and our first-half schedule so tough.  Our win against Tulsa was our first step to making some of those arguments a reality.  We have Chicago and San Antonio this weekend.  We will be on ESPN2 again next Thursday against Indiana.  I would like the commentators to be talking in that game about our second-half turnaround.

--Katherine Goodman