Huge fourth by Liberty deals major blow to Sparks’ playoff hopes

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Liberty swept the Sparks in their season series an may have ended their chance to make it into the postseason.

The Sparks had the New York Liberty on the ropes.

“Had.” But it can only take a few minutes for a team like the Liberty to get back into it. A three-point barrage doomed the Sparks and, in the end, the Libs dealt a critical blow to the Sparks’ playoff chase, 96-89. With that loss, a win by the Chicago Sky against the Minnesota Lynx will eliminate the Sparks from playoff contention.

It looked very promising for three quarters for the Sparks. The harassing defense by the Sparks led to missed shots and turnovers by the Liberty. L.A. took advantage and went on a 20-2 run that spanned the first and second quarter. L.A. led by double digits as the Liberty stayed cold.

Four Sparks players got it going offensively as they had double figures by halftime. But Breanna Stewart and Betnijah Laney whittled the Sparks lead down to 7, 50-43, after 20 minutes of play.

In the third quarter, Rae Burrell and Layshia Clarendon kept their hot shooting going. They boosted the lead to 13 before the Liberty began their three-point assault. Stefanie Dolson made her first three while Sabrina Ionescu sank her third to end the quarter. By the way, Ionescu would break Diana Taurasi’s record for most three-pointers in a WNBA season. The Sparks still led nicely, 74-69, going into the fourth period.

And then an unlikely hero swung the pendulum to the Liberty. Dolson would make back-to-back threes to give the lead to New York. And when the Sparks took the lead back, Dolson made another two straight to give the lead back to the Libs for good. The three-point attack was contagious as Betnijah Laney, Kayla Thornton, and Sabrina each made a three to put Los Angeles away. The Sparks are now one Chicago Sky win away from elimination.

Coach Curt Miller had a great game plan but in the end, they fell short on upsetting the New York Liberty.

“I can’t be more proud of them. Momentum changed in the fourth quarter right out of the gate on two big offensive rebounds that led to (Stefanie) Dolson’s first three, which built some momentum. Then a turnover, and all of a sudden, they had a run going in the fourth quarter,” said Miller, who is now 16-23 with the Sparks. “That’s how fast momentum can change in the game. But we didn’t quit. It took a great fourth quarter by a team to beat us. We played them three times this year and all three games were in single digits. If they’re not the favorites right now going into this (playoffs), I’d be shocked. We have competed with that team well all three times and I think that bodes well for a bright future for us.”

Coach Miller and the team looked at this year as a building year and a playoff berth would be a cherry on top of this season that had been full of injuries, illnesses, and adversity. The Sparks went at this game with 8 players once again as they didn’t have Nneka Ogwumike for the third straight game and Karlie Samuelson for the second game in a row.

As of this writing, the Sparks’ season isn’t “over” yet, per se. They do have one more game left in the regular season as they fly West to Seattle, Washington with a game against the Storm on Sunday. But as mentioned earlier, they will be eliminated from playoff contention if the Sky defeat the Minnesota Lynx on Friday. The Lynx can still get up to a 4th seed so they’re definitely still playing for something.

Layshia Clarendon and Rae Burrell each had career-highs as they did their damnedest to win this game. Layshia finished with 30 points while Burrell went for 18. Azura Stevens also had 18 points to go along with 8 boards and four packs (that’s blocks for you guys younger than Gen-X).

The New York Liberty were led by Breanna Stewart with 25 points (21 in the first half) while Betnijah Laney went for 20 points and 7 assists. Stefanie Dolson went 5 for 5 from three and scored 17 off the pine while Sabrina Ionescu scored all 16 of her points in the second half.

The Sparks did a great job in the paint (40-32 advantage) and got the Libs to turn the ball over often (17 turnovers). But the Liberty made 17 threes (one short of the regular season record at 18) and that can overwhelm any team in the WNBA.

We’ll see if the playoff chase is still alive come Sunday. If that’s the case, the Sparks game on Sunday against Seattle is a must (although they’ll need help with a Chicago loss; they’re playing the Sun on Sunday, appropriately enough).

No matter the result, though, the Sparks will fight until their season is over.