With the Washington Mystics trailing the visiting Los Angeles Sparks by five points at the end of the third quarter, Tree Rollins warned his team of what could happen.
“The first team that gets a spark will win the game,” the interim coach said.
The Sparks owned an eight-point cushion with 7:40 left, causing Rollins to call another timeout. The Mystics responded, pulling within two points in the next five minutes, but eventually collapsed again, falling 89-80 at Verizon Center.
“That was the run we were waiting on,” Mystics guard Alana Beard said. “But it started too late. If we had a couple of minutes left in this game, we would’ve been up. But you can’t do 20/20 hindsight because we have 40 minutes to show what we have. We didn’t take advantage of it.”
The Mystics had hoped to earn their second straight win as a 52nd birthday present for their interim head coach but instead fell to 1-9.
The Sparks, meanwhile, improved to 5-2 and moved into first place in the Western Conference standings.
Down 76-74 with 2:34 left, Mystics forward Stacey Lovelace-Tolbert missed two free throws. Rollins then inserted forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who had five fouls, but she was called for her sixth on the ensuing play, forcing Rollins to put Lovelace-Tolbert back on the floor.
Sparks guard LaToya Thomas sank one of her two free throws for a 77-74 lead with 2:16 left.
Lovelace-Tolbert forced her way into the lane but missed a jump shot. On the next play, Monique Currie tried to grab the rebound but the ball went out of bounds.
Sparks center Christi Thomas, whom Milton-Jones labeled the “one-man team inside” because of her 25 points, laid the ball in for a 79-74 lead with 1:25 remaining. Beard answered with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 79-77 with 1:08 left, but the Mystics failed to get any closer.
Milton-Jones scored 15 points while Currie (20), Nakia Sanford (15) and Beard (11) also posted double figures.
“We were a second late on our help [defense],” said Sanford, whose team was outrebounded 34-23. “We were a second late on offense, on loose balls and rebounds. That contributed a lot to our loss.”
Washington scored the game’s first six points, but Los Angeles answered with an 8-0 run. At that point, both teams settled down and traded baskets. The Mystics answered any Sparks basket by driving the lane, creating nine successful free throw opportunities.
But Washington couldn’t maintain the scoring in the second quarter. Between Currie’s 3-point opportunity at the 9:15 mark and her jumper with 4:59 left, the Mystics hit an offensive drought as the Sparks built a 32-27 lead.
“When you attack the basket, it doesn’t mean every time you get the ball you put your head down and take it to the hole,” Currie said. “It has to be a reason why you’re going. You either see something or you’re trying to get somebody open.”
Beard left the game with 2:30 left in the first half after landing awkwardly on her ankle. Although Beard was able to return in the second half, the injury limited her effectiveness. From there the Sparks were able to dictate the pace.
“Both teams were playing in mud,” Rollins said. “We kind of expected it, I hate to say it. With the win we had against Phoenix [Wednesday], we came out and just couldn’t get it going.”