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Sparks Season Ends with Game 3 Semifinals Loss to Sun

September 22, 2019 - Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) - Los Angeles Sparks News Release

LONG BEACH, Calif. - The Los Angeles Sparks could not stave off elimination in Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals, falling 78-56 to the Connecticut Sun at the Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach. The Sun backcourt of Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams continued their strong player with 29 and 17 points, respectively, as Connecticut completed a three-game series sweep. Nneka Ogwumike recorded a team-high 17 points and six rebounds for Los Angeles in the losing effort.

Candace Parker opened scoring with a layup that moved her to seventh all-time in WNBA playoff points, passing Deanna Nolan. Williams responded by tallying Connecticut's first seven points to take control for the Sun. A Williams transition layup extended the lead to 11-4 at the 3:44 mark, but Los Angeles found energy of their own in Alana Beard to counter the Connecticut barrage. Beard nailed a 14-foot jumper, forced Thomas into a turnover, and converted a layup in the final three minutes of play to help the Sparks stay afloat.

Connecticut held a 14-11 edge to open the second quarter, but Nneka Ogwumike and Alexis Jones combined for a quick five points to retake the lead. It would not hold, however, as Thomas scored 11 points over the next four minutes to drive a 15-2 Connecticut run. Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray responded with a 10-point burst, scoring six and four points, respectively, to narrow the deficit, and a Chiney Ogwumike layup cut the Sun advantage to three with 1:36 remaining. The Sparks would get no closer, though, as Connecticut extended the lead to 40-32 at the break.

Connecticut used a 15-5 run to pull away from Los Angeles at the start of the second half. The Sparks showed signs of life with four minutes to play in the third quarter as Nneka Ogwumike made a driving layup, stole the ball and converted in transition on consecutive possessions. Chiney Ogwumike joined her sister with a steal and two free throws, but the Sun responded by rattling off an 8-0 run that pushed the lead to 19.

The deficit proved too much for Los Angeles to overcome throughout the remainder of the game. Head coach Derek Fisher dipped into his bench to close out the fourth quarter and received encouraging performances from his young players, highlighted by five points from Jones and four from rookie Kalani Brown.

Sparks Notes

- Candace Parker moved to seventh all- time in WNBA playoffs scoring (871), passing Deanna Nolan.

- Candace Parker tied Nikki Teasley for 12th all-time in WNBA playoffs assists (165).

- Nneka Ogwumike passed Erika de Souza (271) and tied Swin Cash (272) for 16th all-time in playoff rebounds.

- Nneka Ogwumike recorded her 500th postseason point.

- The Sparks finish the 2019 season with a 22-12 record, three games better than the 2018 season (19-15).

Sun Notes

- The Sun advance to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2005.

- Connecticut extended its streak of games played with the same lineup to 37.

- Jasmine Thomas tied her playoff career- high for 3-pointers made (5).

- Jasmine Thomas scored a playoff career- high 29 points. It is also the second- highest single-game scoring total in franchise playoffs history.

- Courtney Williams became the fourth Sun player to record at least 17 points and 13 rebounds in a playoff game.

Quotes

Coach Derek Fisher, Nneka Ogwumike and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt spoke for the Los Angeles Sparks.

On Candace Parker's limited minutes:

DF: "I tried to do as much as I could do in the moment to help the team. It wasn't an injury or any specific 'this is why I'm not going to play Candace' reason. Trying to find energy, spark, physicality, and things we just tried to search for throughout the game. We've had an issue sustaining energy over 40 minutes against this team in this series. Also trying to get fresh bodies in so we can continue to bang rebound, run the floor, and communicate defensively. So it wasn't anything to single her out. Riquna played 17 minutes; TRP played 12 minutes. I know it's Candace Parker and we're going to try to make it about her 11 minutes but it was just about trying to do something different I thought would try and help us win."

On the physicality of the Sun:

DF: "Looking at the stats tonight and Courtney Williams has 13 rebounds, physicality is not always pushing, elbowing, brute physicality. How hard you cut is physicality, how forceful you communicate during defense, and that's how you also send your message to your opponents. You have to give Connecticut a lot of credit for being able to sustain a level of play. There were moments in each game where we looked like we could compete and win, but they were just better over the course of 40 minutes each night and that's why they're advancing."

On whether Derek Fisher experienced different emotions now than he expected at the beginning of season:

DF: "At the moment, not that I can feel. But any team I have ever been a part of when the season ends and you are not the champion, it feels very similar. You wish you could've done more, you wish you could've as a player been more or done more things. As a coach I wish I could have done more to help our team. They tried to do as much as we asked them to do, [and we asked them to do] as much as possible. It was challenging for this group who had success in their history. Asking them to play the game differently on both ends of the court at times. The main thing I feel that is very similar is the sense of determination and motivation to come back better. Whether you win or lose, when you come back into the next season you have to be better than you were the year before. That's what I'm going to try and hang my hat on as a coach as well. However much time needs to be spent on me to be better, that's what I am going to do, and we are going to try and make sure our players are going to do so as well."

On building a team and staying together:

DF: "That's something Penny and I will discuss in the coming weeks and try and figure out how we need to get better and where we need to get better. We have a core group of players that have won championships, been together for five years. Chelsea, Candace, Nneka and Alana Beard have all played together for multiple years. So there's a core group of veterans there that I think are great quality pieces. I think continuing to find how we put a team out on the floor around those three or four players, including Candace as well, that gives us a chance to compete against the best teams in this league. Obviously Connecticut is moving on and the type of team they have, the speed in the backcourt, the length, style of play, etc. - those are things we need to figure out how to address, whether keeping this group together or not. There's a reason why Washington and Connecticut, the two teams who have been together the longest [have] consistency from their coaches, their terminology, style of play. You can't shortcut those things just by putting a roster together, so we'll try to make some decisions and try to come back better."

On Connecticut's chemistry:

DF: "I think their group is extremely connected. What we have to take from it is they're connected because of what happened to them in the past. They have been bounced in the first round in the past years. So there was a hunger and determination and a passion to get beyond that and that didn't just start today or in this series. It started with how hard they worked in the offseason, how hard they pushed each other in practice every day. The way they approached everything that they did, they were determined to get to a place where they can play for a championship. That's how it happens, and that's how we have to take from this."

On the growth that the Sparks will go through following today's loss:

NO: "There's a lot of room to grow. To be honest, I'm still thinking about this season as far as how the season went. I'm just really proud of my team. We had a lot of new things thrown at us. We had a hard July. I'm proud of my team and happy to be with this organization, obviously, and I'm looking forward to seeing how things pan out. Obviously it didn't end how we wanted it to but I'm happy with my team."

On takeaways from this season:

TRP: "I think we can learn a lot from this season. We had a lot of ups and downs. So when we have a full team together, we figured out a new system for everybody. We got new players, we got strong core. We got new players filling in, and a new coach, so we're all learning a new system. We got one year under our belt so next year will be a lot better for us."

On playing against Jasmine and Courtney:

TRP: "They're both great players. I think for us, it's being able to play team defense, it's not really a one-on-one thing. When you have two great guards out there, you have to learn how to contain both as a team, not just one-on-one."

On not keeping the consistency for a full 40 minutes:

NO: "I think ultimately, yeah, for 40 minutes we want to be able to maintain an aggression that we weren't able to. I think that we didn't manage runs properly, and against a team like that, they're going to try to take advantage of runs. They have a lot of people in their arsenal, I mean each game. First game, Alyssa Thomas went off, second game Jonquel Jones went off, this game Jasmine Thomas went off. I would say Courtney Williams kind of went off in all three games. We have to be able to understand that can happen and manage runs in ways that doesn't contribute to us losing our composure."

On taking pride in this team:

NO: "I think that I've evolved as a player. I came in, and in the front court I had Delisha Milton- Jones, Candace Parker, Ebony Hoffman. I had them to look up to, and so I was more of a sponge. I was trying to be more absorbent. As years have gone by, I realized I have the personality and the stature of someone that can ignite certain things. My personal ethos is to instill greatness in other people, so I always try to bring my best self anywhere I am. It doesn't always happen, but I try my best to make sure that I'm the best that I can be for my teammates and I think with that comes with a certain pride. I don't ever feel as though there's a fear in expectation. I turn it into a standard. I hope that I can do my best to continue to infuse greatness in this organization and my teammates."

On the physical toll the season takes on players:

TRP: "Whether you play overseas or not, it's just a grind of the season, and bumps and bruises. Playing overseas, for me, I usually take time off before I go over, just so I could have that month or two just to reset my mind and my body. But it's still a grind going over and then coming right into the WNBA season right after. But I think we're used to it. We've been doing it all our lives, from when I was younger playing all year-round basketball, AAU. And in college you're in season but then off- season is just as strenuous as being in season. And then you're going straight from college basketball right into WNBA, so we've been doing it all our career. Even though it's a grind, and it's wear and tear, I think our bodies and our minds are used to it, so you just learn what you need to do to be ready and prepare your body and your mind.

NO: "It's just kind of what it is. As the president of the union, I'm trying to work towards that not being what we're used to. We're working obviously now to ensure that players have options and ensure that players are well taken care of in the league that they play in and that they dedicate themselves to here in the summer. Right now, playing overseas gets the bills paid. You can't knock any players for doing it, but you do have to take health and fatigue into consideration. Sydney has to report to Spain in five days. That's the reality of it. It's nothing to really condemn, but I do think we're in a very delicate space right now to be able to do what we can to turn the dial on that. I just wish everybody health and safety really, and to continue to create the most viable professional women's league in the world."

Coach Curt Miller, Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams spoke for the Connecticut Sun.

On the Sparks organization:

CM: "I first want to say congratulations to the Sparks. As many people know, they gave me an unbelievable opportunity in 2015 to get into this league as an assistant working for Brian Agler. I'm not sitting here today without the support of Penny Toler to allow me to get into this league. Unbelievably classy organization. Again, my roots come back to the Sparks, and I can't thank them enough. Coach Fisher did a great job with them this year. I could go on and on. The way Candace, Alana, Nneka treated me when I joined the league will stay with me my entire career. Hats off to a classy organization in LA. It makes it even more special for me to watch our team move on beyond the LA organization, because I have such admiration for them."

On the Sun's success thus far:

CM: "The story of the series was our defense. A lot of side stories here and there, but ultimately if you drilled it down, I'm really proud of the maturation of a young team's defense, and you can see what happens when a core group plays together for four years. This was our vision when we took over in '16, to build with a core group, and allow them the highs and lows. We circled this year on the calendar back in 2016 and it's just amazing that that group has allowed the vision that we had all come together."

On building this team and having patience pay off:

CM: "I'm incredibly proud. They have that little bit of chip on their shoulder. This group has truly taken that chip that we may call "a team without mega superstars." We love to call our team a team that has great bounds, and we can win different ways. We've won a game in this series because our post game was dominant. Tonight it was our backcourt, and Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams offensively. It's fun to see it all come together. It's a team that fits together. You're seeing stars blossom in this playoff series. The light is shining on these guys that probably don't get enough credit. It's a very, very versatile team, and we can win in different ways and that's what's been fun to watch."

On the difference between this series with the Sparks and their regular season matchups:

CM: "We just have swagger in this series. As physical and as intense as it got from LA in stretches, I thought we were the more aggressive team. I thought we were more consistently the team that played physical. Ultimately, we continued to keep moving them. We looked like the energy team, and I thought energy was a big part of this series. They won the season series, and they're a great team at home. We did not want to get back to Staples. I was here when we won a playoff game in Long Beach, but we did not want to get back to Staples."

On getting players to buy in on the team:

CM: "Yeah, we didn't know if it would work. But I didn't want to hit a home run with a trade or a free agent every year. The roster was ever-evolving. What I will tell you is the hardest part of it was joining the league and joining here in LA, we had all these 30+ year-olds. I still have yet to coach a 30-year-old in my four years. Not one. I'm very analytically driven. The last four champions in the league have average five, a minimum of five, 30-year-olds. I have yet to coach one in a game. The challenge is that we've been young, we are still young. Thankfully, getting to the finals, Jasmine Thomas will turn 30 during the Finals and it will be the first 30-year-old that I've coached as a head coach in this league. When you look around at some of the championship teams, last year led by Sue Bird and the every other year of LA and Minnesota there for a while, how many veterans they had. Staying the course with this decision, the growing pains of being young together, now there's some stat out there that this starting lineup played consecutive games together in one season more than any other team, maybe in the history of the league. So they've grown together. What they are young in paper and age, they are not young anymore in playing together. That chemistry, and that family, and that locker room is just really tight. I come from the college environment where chemistry, cohesiveness, winning, 'You win in the locker room first mentality.' I brought it and I didn't know if it was really going to work at the pro level, but it has. They have the chemistry and the family environment in that locker room that is really special."

On the guards' performance:

CM: "What doesn't probably get written about enough is Courtney Williams now, two years in a row, is the leading guard rebounder in the league if you just look at ones and twos, and maybe if you took Diamond [DeShields] out of the three, again the leading rebounder of the ones, twos and threes. Courtney Williams is really, really important for us on the defensive glass and she wants to go to the offensive glass all the time too, and we have to stop that sometimes. It's really important that we have a great defensive rebounding percentage. It's important to us. It's who we are. We can't run if we can't get stops, and that all starts with a defensive rebound."

On the team's leadership:

CM: "Jasmine Thomas put us on her back tonight. We had more turnovers at halftime than we had in one of the games at home. So there were stretches where tonight the physicality, LA sped us up at times in the first half. It always came back to Jasmine getting a big basket, getting us into a set where we could have success. She was always huddling the team. It was really Jasmine's leadership on the floor tonight that really, really helped us pull away from them."

On Jasmine Thomas' performance on both ends of the court:

CM: "Jasmine was unbelievable, and she just stayed in plays the whole series with Chelsea Gray and made it difficult. Let's be honest, Chelsea missed some shots in the series that she can make. But she's one of the best point guards in the world, and Jasmine proved the entire series and probably outplayed her. You wouldn't have had many people say that was a check mark going into the series that we would win, and we clearly won that matchup. That's just total effort, and credit to Jasmine having an incredible series. But that's what we see all the time. She doesn't get her due on how talented of a player she is, but she's now been back-to-back first team All-Defensive. You're seeing why she gets those votes."

Connecticut players' opening statement:

JT: "We're feeling real good right now. This was a goal of ours, to be in this position and to take advantage of having home court. We won those two at home and came here with a mission to win this game. We didn't want to play another game in this series."

CW: "That's facts."

On Williams' father's support:

CW: "Yeah, I mean my dad is always bringing the energy. You know, it feels good. Like I've been saying, I look over there and see someone that's bringing more energy than me. So it's an amazing feeling that he was able to be out here and witness us making it to the finals."

On a close season series with the Sparks, but not a close playoffs series:

JT: "I mean, I just think [that's because of] our focus. That's a credit to our coaches' preparation, our team's determination to really take advantage of this being a new season. No matter what happens in the regular season, when you get to the playoffs, it's just a different ball game. And I feel like that's what you saw us do. We're just playing at a different level, different amount of composure, and we're not letting things get to us that happen throughout the game. And we respond every time. For me, being a vet on this team, to see the maturity of us in this playoffs versus us in the past couple of years, it's incredible."

On pregame preparation, being creative and executing the game plan today:

CW: "I mean, I feel like we were just doing what we do. You know, there's not really a magic potion to it. You know, I walk up to [number] five and I say 'Yo, you a dawg, so do what you do.' And I walk up to JJ and I say 'Ain't nobody can guard you.' And I walk up to [number] 40 and I say 'Aye, you the best shooter in the league." And then I walk up to AT and I say 'Yo, you the toughest person in the league right now, nobody can hold you.' And then, you know, I'm a bucket so I tell myself 'Yo, you a buck." And that's it. And then we go out and do what we do."

JT: "I mean we prepare the same for every game. Yeah, I'm going to give y'all the answer you want. But we prepare for every game the same. Our warm up is the same. The energy that we bring is what's important. Because when you're doing the same thing over and over again, sometimes you get comfortable. But we're constantly challenging each other in the warmup to be ready to play. And I think that's what you see when we get on the floor."

On how Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams complement each other on the court:

JT: "I mean, I think - actually, I don't think. I know that that [Williams] is the best midrange shooter in this league. So for me, it's more so getting inside. I'm a point guard, so I have to make sure everyone's involved. But I'm better when I'm getting downhill and when I'm getting in the paint. So you'll see me score more at the rim than you'll see Courtney get inside to the rim. But she's able to do that, so I feel like that's where we complement each other. She can play more on the perimeter, and I'm more inside."

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