The Sparks moved into third place with the win over the Sun.
LOS ANGELES — With 7:17 left to play in the first half of Sunday’s game between Los Angeles and Connecticut, Nneka Ogwumike took a hard hit to the face and landed on the ground.
For a player who plays as hard as Ogwumike, it’s not unusual to to end up on the floor every now and then. But the Sparks leader didn’t just hit the ground – she stayed there for an uncomfortably long time.
Once she got up, though, Ogwumike didn’t even take a breather. She just got right back to it.
On the ensuing defensive possession, Ogwumike went to the floor to corral a loose ball. Then, she went at the body of 6’6 Jonquel Jones and drew a foul, nailing both free throws. Ogwumike beat Jones to a rebound on the following play and stole the ball from Morgan Tuck on the next defensive stand. Los Angeles scored after both stops, turning a five-point deficit into a lead.
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The Sparks had trailed for most of the first quarter and fell behind by seven to start the second. But that crucial sequence turned the tide of the game, and Ogwumike’s fingerprints were all over it en route to a 84-72 victory that moved Los Angeles to third place in the WNBA standings.
“That’s her, right? The resilience, the mental and physical toughness to just consistently be who she is,” head coach Derek Fisher said postgame. “She’s as reliable as it gets, she takes care of herself, she’s always available for our team.”
Even on plays where Ogwumike wasn’t directly involved in the action, her presence was felt. When Tierra Ruffin-Pratt missed an open three, Ogwumike was in her ear all the way down the court, talking her up and keeping her confident.
The elder Ogwumike may not have had the flashiest stat line for the Sparks Sunday –Riquna Williams scoring 21 points in her second game back from suspension jumps off the page – but her contribution was arguably the most important to victory.
Ogwumike scored 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds and 4 steals. More importantly, she helped keep Connecticut’s Jones off the glass. Unsurprisingly, Ogwumike was a game-best plus-16 in her 32 minutes.
“I think it was definitely a playoff atmosphere today,” Candace Parker said. “Nneka did a great job. I think it’s tough to go against [Jonquel’s] length. But she was able to attack her.”
Ogwumike also did a good job of getting a run start going at Jones, allowing her to use her speed to counteract the Sun center’s size.
Both Ogwumike and Jones are among the contenders for MVP, though both are behind the favorite in Elena Delle Donne. However, games like Sunday’s help add fuel to Ogwumike’s candidacy. The leader of the Sparks on and off the floor took the team on her back when they were down, and when she was down, and powered the way to a win.
When asked what Ogwumike’s leadership meant to the team, Fisher told the media to get comfortable because he was ready to gush.
“She comes to work every day with a purpose, with a positive energy about herself that is infectious,” Fisher said. “I think her example of how hard she works allows her to then call other people to the carpet and hold other people accountable. And that’s really, ultimately, what you need in a locker room. The coaches can’t always deliver the message that needs to be delivered. Just about in every industry, how your peers feel about you is what really matters.
“She plays many roles and wears many hats for our organization, and we’re thankful to have her on our side.”
Ogwumike’s performance was especially meaningful during the team’s fifth annual #WeAreWomen game that honors outstanding women within the local community. Her example as a leader both within her team and within the league was reflective of the larger message the Sparks were trying to promote.
The team had a panel event before the game that featured prominent women from sports and entertainment, including Los Angeles President and COO Danita Johnson and Disrupt the Game founder Allison Galer, who is the agent for several WNBA athletes, including four Sparks.
“#WeAreWomen means a lot,” Galer said during the event. “To be a women’s league and to be a woman myself, and to be in a business that supports women and empowers women from top to bottom, I think the timing couldn’t be any better for this game to be today, and for this panel to be today.”
The convergence of empowering women on a day when the Sparks were finally at the peak of their powers, fielding a full roster of 12 players for just the second time this season, was not lost on the team. They needed a complete effort up and down the roster to battle another title contender atop the WNBA standings.
“We are women that reflect everything in society,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “Just knowing from the jump tonight had to be special, I’m just so happy that we won on We are Women Day because that’s the biggest gift we can give. Just showing how fierce we are and how much we protect our home, our community, each other. So today was a win-win.”
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