Sparks' late-game heroics spoil MVP-like performance from Aces star A’ja Wilson

LOS ANGELES — Fifteen ties. Seventeen lead changes.

The Las Vegas Aces were riding a six-game winning streak as one of the hottest teams in the WNBA. For the Los Angeles Sparks, they came into the game on an eight-game losing streak, many of those the result of blown leads late in games.

History looked ready to repeat itself as the Sparks saw their double-digit, fourth-quarter lead evaporate. But in overtime, the upstart Sparks rallied and were able to hold on late to secure a 98-93 victory Friday night against the defending champion Aces.

“Another fourth-quarter lead disappeared, but this is what we're talking about with a young team,” Sparks head coach Curt Miller said postgame.

“You just gotta keep putting them back in that situation. Tonight they responded with some, you know, real grittiness and toughness and found some stops and enough offensive plays to get that game into overtime. And then I just thought we played with intent tonight. And especially in the overtime, you know, did some really nice things to find a way to the finish line.”

The Sparks pulled off the win despite an all-world performance from Aces center A’ja Wilson, who logged 35 points, 12 rebounds three assists and six blocks. It was a historic night for the two-time MVP.

But it was LA, led by rising star Dearica Hamby's 28 points, that got it done down the stretch.

The Sparks first took control in the second quarter when they locked in both offensively and defensively.

Halfway through the quarter, the Aces led 31-28. But the last five minutes of the half is when the Sparks went on their run.

Rookie Rickea Jackson and Aari McDonald made three 3-pointers apiece in the first half to help fuel the run, and McDonald in particular made a huge impact in the win, scoring a career-high of 23 points. Coming into the game, she knew her matchup with Aces guard Kelsey Plum would be something she looked to attack.

“[Plum] is a great player,” McDonald said. “I played with her my freshman year at UW, but I mean, Kels is an offensive player. She doesn't want to play on the defensive end. And she picks and chooses, but I mean, I knew that coming into the game, so I had to take advantage of that. Even if I wasn't scoring, it was getting my teammates open with it. “

Equally as impressive as McDonald’s scoring was L.A.’s defense. They held the defending champs to five points in the last five minutes of the frame. The Sparks ended the first half with a 9-0 run and led 46-36. The Aces scored only 12 points in the second quarter.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Stephanie Talbot celebrates after the team's overtime win over the Las Vegas Aces on Friday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Los Angeles Sparks forward Stephanie Talbot celebrates after the team's overtime win over the Las Vegas Aces on Friday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

During halftime, the team was so locked in that they didn’t notice the score. Miller credits that to his team’s focus coming into this game.

“We've talked a lot about what we want to hold ourselves accountable for, and we just have an opportunity to continue to get better and better and there's just been too much slippage and tonight our slippage was down, our turnovers were down,” he said.

The Sparks recorded a franchise-low three turnovers (four was the previous low, July 16, 2010 at Chicago) and the lowest by a WNBA team this season (five by Chicago on June 16 was the previous low).

At the same time, the Sparks continued to bring the pressure defensively against the Aces as L.A. maintained a 70-60 edge going into the fourth.

The final stretch of the game was high stakes for both teams. For the Aces, they had to climb back to keep their winning streak alive. For the Sparks, it was a chance to end their losing skid and get a win for the first time since early June. Add in the fact that L.A. blew a double-digit lead in its most recent loss, and the pressure was certainly on to close this one out.

The Aces came out of the fourth quarter break with a different level of intensity. A 15-4 run gave Vegas a 75-74 lead.

It remained close the rest of the way.

The Aces ran an out-of-bounds play to get Wilson underneath the basket for a layup that put her team up 84-82 with 15 seconds to play. On the other end, Stephanie Talbot got a touch in the post for a fadeaway that hit every part of the rim before dropping through to tie it at 84-84 with 3 seconds left. That sent the game into overtime.

The OT period saw the teams continue to trade baskets. With perimeter jump-shots hard to come by, both squads continuously got into the paint to score the ball.

First it was McDonald for the Sparks with a scoop layup in the paint, followed by layups by Talbot and Hamby. The Aces' first six points in the overtime period all came from Jackie Young. With under 2 minutes left, the game was tied yet again, this time at 90.

A Layshia Clarendon floater in the paint dropped to break the tie in favor of the Sparks, 92-90. After a stop on the defensive end, L.A. came down court to score a decisive blow. With the shot clock winding down, Hamby got the ball in the paint. She faked once before going up, got fouled by Alysha Clark and finished with the contact. Hamby hit the free throw to put L.A. up 95-90 with 24 seconds on the clock.

From that point on, free throws sealed the game for the Sparks, ending the streaks for both teams.