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Sparks Stage Brilliant Comeback To Go 3-0 For First Time Since 2003

NEW YORK — The last time the Los Angeles Sparks started out a season 3-0 was over a decade ago, way back in 2003, when the Lisa Leslie-led team won its first nine games. And despite two 30-point wins to open the 2016 season, it looked like that streak would continue. Because with 1:20 left in Saturday evening’s affair with the New York Liberty, the Sparks trailed 65-57.

Completely understandable, really. The Liberty claimed the best regular season record last year, and had also started out 2-0. Plus, the Sparks were on the second night of a road back-to-back, while the Liberty hadn’t played since last Sunday. So no one would have blamed the Sparks for packing it in; 2-1 is a solid start, especially with two of the games coming on the road against playoff teams. Except the Sparks weren’t burned out quite yet.

Kristi Toliver got to the line and hit two free throws, cutting the deficit to five.

Just getting stops, that’s where it starts. – Candace Parker, to WNBA.com

A few seconds later, Toliver and Parker trapped Sugar Rodgers along the sideline to force a key turnover. After a clutch and-one from Nneka Ogwumike on the ensuing possession, it was all of a sudden a one-possession game. Liberty 65, Sparks 62 with 54.5 seconds to go. All the Sparks needed was a stop. One stop and they would have a chance to tie.

If you’re down eight, you gotta get stops to win. – Candace Parker

Shavonte Zellous bobbed this way and that, trying desperately to shake Ogwumike. No dice. The Sparks forward mirrored Zellous’ every move, until finally the Liberty guard had no choice but to hoist an ill-fated fadeaway with the shot clock running down. Airball. The Sparks had their stop.

Still, they faced a three-point deficit with just 31 seconds remaining. Now they would need some heroics on the offensive end. Candace Parker time, right? Wrong. Kristi Toliver time.

(The play) was for me to get an elevator cut at the top of the key, and if I could shoot it, I’d get it. And if not, Candace and I were gonna play two-man game. A couple seconds went by, and so instead of getting a quick two, I just went for the three. I thought that was the best option we had, and it went. – Kristi Toliver, to WNBA.com

The normally sharpshooting guard was just 2-for-11 from the field heading into the final possession, but she calmly drained a triple from the left wing, and just like that, the game was tied at 65.

If you’re down eight, you gotta get stops to win. – Candace Parker

But with 21.5 seconds remaining, the Sparks would still need one more stop in order to force overtime, and give themselves a chance to win. The Liberty, unsurprisingly, went to Tina Charles, and once again it was Ogwumike tasked with coming up with a big stop. Using a nice shot fake, Charles got herself just enough space to fire off one of her patented high-release jumpers, but it clanged off the left side of the rim, sending the game to overtime.

We were able to get some turnovers, Nneka got a huge and-one, Kristi hit a huge three, and just get to overtime, and that’s what we tried to do. – Candace Parker

In overtime, the Sparks forced three more Liberty turnovers, and blitzed New York over the final three minutes to come away with a 79-72 victory. Ogwumike, whose triple with 3:10 left in OT put the Sparks up for good, finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds. Parker, who shot just 6-for-19 but hit a clutch jumper with just under a minute remaining in overtime to put the game out of reach, ended her night with 14 points and 12 rebounds. And Toliver, who tallied 13 points on the night, hit the game-tying triple and iced the game with the two final free throws.

“I think we’ve got some grit to us. We dug down deep, made some plays, hit some shots, got stops, hit free throws. Those are all critical things,” Sparks head coach Brian Agler told WNBA.com.

Now at 3-0, for the first time since 2003, the Sparks sit atop the Western Conference. But more importantly, they hold the best record in the league, a vital position given the new playoff format. The top eight teams will make the WNBA Playoffs this year, regardless of conference standing, with the top two seeds receiving a bye to the semifinals.

“The way I look at it is you have 10 three-game series with 10 opponents, and one team you play four times. So you want to win each series, because that could impact seeding and tiebreaker scenarios,” Agler said. “All these games are really important just from that matter alone. That’s different than the way it was.”

With the first two rounds of the playoffs being single-elimination games, securing a top-two seed for the Playoffs provides an even bigger advantage. Now, every regular season game will be important, as one loss could be the difference between a bye to the semifinals and having to win two elimination games to get there.

“Coach Agler said from the beginning, every opponent we have, we’re considering it a mini series, and we want to win every series with every team. So right now we’re 1-0 with three different teams, and we just want to continue to win the series,” Toliver said.

Last season, the Sparks’ comeback win on Saturday night would have been just a great early-season win. This season, however, it could be the difference between being on the court, or sitting at home during the WNBA Finals.

“It was huge to get New York on their home court, because we play them two more times at home,” Parker said. “So to be 1-0 on a great team like New York, it’s huge for us.”