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Sparks put the clamps on late in 86-83 win

The victory puts the Sparks in playoff position with nine games to go.

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

For the fourth game in a row, the Sparks found themselves in a barn-burner down the stretch, locked in a one-possession game in a critical matchup for playoff positioning.

They turned to their defense, limiting the Liberty to 11 points in the fourth quarter, including 10 turnovers compared to one made field goal. The Sparks used a small lineup for the final five minutes, using their speed and collective IQ to shut down the New York offense and take the 86-83 win on the road, punctuated by a Brittney Sykes block on Sabrina Ionescu at the buzzer.

“We’re confident on that end that we can get the stops that we need to, whether we’re ahead or behind, we can get to stops that will still put us in position to secure the game,” coach Derek Fisher said postgame.

Te’a Cooper was the head of the defense, tasked with defending the opposing ball handler whether that was All-Star Betnijah Laney or Ionescu. Cooper was surrounded by Sykes and Erica Wheeler on the wings, with Nia Coffey and Nneka Ogwumike in the frontcourt. All five were capable of defending on the perimeter, with any forward able to provide backside help on switches.

All those turnovers meant the Sparks were able to get out and running on offense and just needed a few scores in the half court to close out the win. Wheeler led L.A. with 17 points, six in the fourth quarter as she remains second in the league in clutch scoring behind Breanna Stewart. Cooper added five in the final period as well as the Sparks came back from 11 down with 13:13 to play.

“Resilience and composure, that is how our team has grown,” Chiney Oguwmike said about the team’s comeback. “I think over the course of this season, things that might have broken us early are not breaking us now.”

The Sparks dug themselves a hole in the middle two quarters. Disciplined offense propelled them to a 32-23 lead, but at that point, the defense started to unravel. Amanda Zahui B. had a chance to put L.A. up 12, but her three rimmed out, and the Sparks lost Natasha Howard on the perimeter on the ensuing possession. That jumpstarted a 14-2 run for New York, which went into halftime with an eight-point advantage.

Even with a 25-10 advantage in turnovers to win the possession battle, the Sparks couldn’t stop the Liberty consistently early as they hemorrhaged threes. Entering this game, L.A. hadn’t allowed an opponent to hit more than 11 threes in a contest; the Liberty had 15 by the end of the third quarter, as Sami Whitcomb, Becca Allen, and Howard all found daylight from distance.

Fortunately, the Sparks had the depth to withstand the challenge. The visitors had a fully healthy top eight for only the second time this season, as Chiney Ogwumike was available for the first time since May 28. The younger Ogwumike was limited to short minutes stints, but she was on the court during the bulk of L.A.’s 14-0 run spanning the third and fourth that changed the game.

“Just to have them back with their scoring ability, their ability to play the game, their IQ, it just helps a lot,” Wheeler said postgame. “It makes the game so much easier.”

The Sparks will take their newly healthy roster to Washington on Tuesday, where they face the Mystics and their newly healthy MVP Elena Delle Donne.