Sparks Earn First Win of Season in Zahui B.’s Return

On Friday, the Sparks used stifling defense to earn their first win of the young season at Chicago, 76-61.

Forward Chiney Ogwumike scored a layup on the game’s first possession to put the Sparks on top 2-0. However, minutes later Los Angeles found itself trailing the Sky, who were without former Sparks superstar Candace Parker, 11-4. But the Sparks battled back to carry a 20-19 lead into the second quarter after ending the quarter on a 6-0 run.

In the first period, the Sparks were led by forward Nneka Ogwumike’s eight points and three rebounds. Ogwumike shot a perfect 4-for-4 from the field in the quarter. The Sparks also got a boost from major offseason acquisition center Amanda Zahui B. who was sidelined for the first two games of the season with a back injury. The Swedish national put up five first quarter points for Los Angeles, scoring her first points as a Spark at the quarter’s 5:15 mark. Meanwhile, forward Ruthy Hebard’s eight first quarter points helped the Sky hang with the Sparks in the first period.

The Sparks led throughout the second period of play. They scored the first eight points of the quarter to open up a 9-point lead and push their scoring run to 14-0. Guard Brittney Sykes opened the scoring in the second quarter with a gritty 3-point-play. Shortly thereafter, forward Nia Coffey knocked down consecutive 3-balls to give the Sparks a 28-19 advantage. Rookie guard Stephanie Watts, who Los Angeles drafted 10th overall in the 2021 WNBA Draft and then traded to Chicago for forward Gabby Williams, helped the Sky weather the Sparks onslaught. Watts was the only Sky player to score for the first seven minutes of the second quarter, tallying seven points in that time.

The final three minutes of the half were tightly contested, with the Sky narrowing the Sparks lead to five points, 38-33, when the horn sounded. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot played an important role for Chicago in the second quarter, recording three assists and adding two points. The Sparks were impressively well-balanced on offense in the second quarter, with 6 different players scoring. Brittney Sykes tied her career-high with five steals in the first half.

Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks in the first half with 9 points and 4 rebounds at the half, while guard Erica Wheeler led Los Angeles at the half with 5 assists.

The Sky’s Hebard kicked off the second half scoring with a short jumper to cut the Sparks lead to three just 16 seconds into the third quarter. The lead would be trimmed to 38-37 less than a minute later. Nneka Ogwumike and guard Erica Wheeler quickly answered the bell for the Sparks, combining for nine points and three steals in just over three minutes. This allowed Los Angeles to push its lead out to 47-39 before Sky guard Kahleah Copper was charged with a flagrant foul while driving to the hoop for a layup with 4:55 to go in the quarter. In addition, Sky GM/HC James Wade was whistled for a technical foul. Sparks veteran guard Kristi Toliver capitalized on the calls by hitting three consecutive free throws and increasing her team’s lead to 11. A minute-and-a-half later Toliver hit a mid-range jumper to push the Sparks lead to 54-39 and cap off a 15-2 scoring run.

By the end of the quarter, the Sparks held a commanding 61-43 lead. They were fueled by Nneka Ogwumike and Wheeler. In the third, Nneka Ogwumike scored five points, and recorded two rebounds, assists, and steals each while Wheeler put up nine points and nabbed two steals. The Sparks forced a remarkable 11 turnovers in the period. The Sparks held the Sky to 10 points in the third quarter.

In the final quarter, the teams traded points, with a variety of players scoring for each squad. The Sky never made it close and the Sparks led by as many as 21 points. Wheeler continued her productive night, adding four points and an assist. Wheeler scored all 13 of her points in the second half. Sparks rookie guard Arella Guirantes recorded her first career 3-pointer late in the quarter.

The Sparks were outrebounded by Chicago 33-30, but maintained an advantage in turnovers and personal fouls. The Sky committed a franchise record 27 turnovers, 13 of which were Sparks steals, and committed 25 fouls. Conversely, the Sparks turned the ball over 20 times while committing 18 fouls. The Sparks shot 39.4% from the field and 47.4% from downtown while the Sky recorded a 41.2% field goal percentage and 31.6% 3-point percentage. Notably, the Sparks scored 29 points off of Sky turnovers.

Nneka Ogwumike recorded a team-high 14 points for the Sparks while also reeling in a team-high 9 rebounds.

“Nneka makes Nneka so efficient at scoring,” Sparks General Manager/Head Coach Derek Fisher quipped in the pregame press conference.

On 6-of-11 shooting, she did just that. Additionally, Wheeler finished with 13 points, 6 assists, and 3 steals. Meanwhile, Sykes put up 11 points, gathered 5 rebounds, and picked up 5 steals. The Sky were led in scoring by guard Diamond DeShields’ 14 points, center Astou Ndour’s 9 rebounds, and Vandersloot’s 6 assists.

In the postgame press conference, Coach Fisher touted his team’s outstanding defensive effort.

“Defense is ultimately what wins games,” he said. He also praised Zahui B., who put up 8 points in her first appearance of the season “for being ready to go tonight” both as a communicator and scorer. After the game, both Sykes, Wheeler, Zahui B. all expressed confidence that Los Angeles could build off its performance tonight.

The Sparks now get set to take the Sky on in Chicago again on Sunday at 3 p.m. PT on Facebook and Spectrum SportsNet with hopes of improving to 2-2 on the season.