Sparks win big in emotional home opener against the Phoenix Mercury

The Los Angeles Sparks bench helped propel them to an impressive win over the Phoenix Mercury.

The Los Angeles Sparks bench clicked on all cylinders to help the team sustain their lead over Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo by Amanda Scurlock/LA Sentinel)

It was emotional yet a delight for the Sparks to welcome Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner back to the league in her first game since the 2021 season following her arrival back in the States from being wrongfully detained in Russia throughout 2022.

Griner was showered with love and cheers from the crowd at Arena on Friday night, then proceeded to play a stellar ballgame finishing with 18 points, six rebounds, two assists, and four blocks.

“Big picture wise, having Brittney Griner back with all of us and how important she is to our league. Just a remarkable story to have her back in our league and back on the court,” Sparks Head Coach Curt Miller said about Griner and the special night.

Before the game started, Miller told the media that the play by the team in the home opener would only sometimes be pretty or perfect but fearless. The Sparks displayed fearlessness, and much more in their home opening win against the visiting Phoenix Mercury, besting them 94-71 in the final.

Judging by the first part of the opening quarter, it was looking bleak out the gate, with the Sparks falling behind by 11 but with consistent buckets and nervous energy out of the way, the Sparks were able to make it a competitive contest in the latter half of the quarter. Amid a run to close the gap, Lexie Brown and Karlie Samuelson hit crucial three-pointers to cut the Mercury’s lead to 20-17 with under two minutes left in the quarter.

Brown’s budding start in the first quarter led the way to the rest of the Sparks’ scoring throughout the game. She has established herself as a capable shooter in the league, which has paid dividends for her development and team success.

Once Brown started to let her shot flow in the opening quarter with eight points, the game began to brighten up for the Sparks into the second quarter and beyond.

The Sparks continued their momentum into the second quarter with a big boost from the bench, with rookie guard Zia Cooke leading the charge. Cooke’s hot start to the quarter kept the Sparks within reach to take control of the game.

Los Angeles clawed their way to tie the game 30-30 during a run and did not let up. Layshia Clarendon gained the Sparks a three-point edge, 33-30, and Cooke built off that to extend the lead to six for the team in the middle of the quarter.

Miller credited Cooke’s play through the first half for the game’s final result. In the second quarter alone, Cooke had 14 points, shooting 5-5 from the field, and led the team in scoring heading into halftime.
“We may not be sitting here with this result without her first half when we were struggling,” Miller told media postgame. “What a rookie debut for her.”

Along with Cooke’s contributions in the second quarter, the Sparks were able to outscore the Mercuty 35-19 heading into halftime.

Samuelson was the other consistent scorer for the Sparks bench, with Cooke to help the Sparks sustain their lead against the Mercury. Samuelson had just been waived right at the end of the training camp and then was brought back on a hardship contract. She started to get emotional, just sharing a glimpse of her feelings about her status on the team just days prior.

“This has been a hard week for me, but I’m very proud of myself to say I have been through this. I believe in myself,” Samuelson told the media postgame.

Samuelson’s tenacity and will were on display through the second half with her scoring and extra efforts to maintain the Sparks’ offensive possession at times. Samuelson hit a three-pointer to push the Sparks’ lead to 71-46 with about three minutes to go in the quarter. Not too long afterward, Samuelson fought to maintain the Sparks’ possession on offense, which got the Sparks home crowd loud.

When asked about Samuelson’s tenacity and production in the win, Miller said that was precisely what the Sparks brass thought they would get from her.

“She is fundamentally where she’s supposed to be on the floor,” Miller said as he complimented Samuelson’s shooting and toughness. Samuelson finished the game with 13 points, shooting 2-2 from three-point range.

Veteran forward Joyner Holmes grabbed some much needed offensive rebounds when the team was struggling to get the team extra possessions. The Sparks bench as a whole scored 38 points, besting the Mercury’s 31 points on the night.

Into the final quarter, the Sparks maintained their lead over the Mercury as it went into double digits. At one point, the Sparks held their largest lead of 27 points as they were in a good groove. They outscored Phoenix 21-16 in the fourth quarter.

Speaking of the Sparks’ groove in the contest, it began with veteran guard Jordin Canada. Though Canada had a quiet night with her scoring, finishing with five points, five assists, and two steals, the things she did on the floor that were not shown in the box score made a difference.

“She set the tone with our pace offensively, and she set the tone defensively with her pressure,” Miller said as he also called Canada the quarterback for the team, “We’re gonna give her confidence that there’s gonna be nights where she’s going to make a lot more shots than she did tonight.

Five Sparks players scored in double figures, three of them being starters. Nneka Ogwumike led all scorers with 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists. Chiney Ogwumike had 15 points, seven rebounds, one assist, and a steal. Brown finished the contest with 14 points, four rebounds, and two assists.

This win over the Mercury gives the Sparks their first win of the season and within the Commissioner’s Cup. The Sparks will donate their earnings from Cup games to the California Women’s Law organization.

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