LOS ANGELES (AP) Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks would like some late-season momentum to make up for a mostly underachieving season.
Parker scored 24 points, Kristi Toliver had 20 and the Sparks beat the Seattle Storm 77-65 on Friday night to remain in control of the race for the No. 3 seed.
The Sparks (16-17) are a game ahead of San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference with one game remaining. Los Angeles can clinch third with a win in its regular-season finale Saturday at West-leading Phoenix. San Antonio, which owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Sparks, finishes Sunday against Chicago.
The Sparks were coming off a big win against Minnesota, a possible first-round playoff opponent, and Parker hopes they are building toward the postseason.
”I think we’re kind of starting to find our identity a little bit, and it’s about feeling good,” Parker said. ”There’s so many times where we peaked so early in the season, where we were playing extremely well and then, all of a sudden, come playoff time we weren’t playing well. Hopefully this is the polar opposite.”
Jenna O’Hea scored a career-high 16 points for the Storm (12-21), who were eliminated from the playoffs before tip-off when San Antonio defeated Minnesota. It is the first time Seattle has missed the playoffs since 2003. The Storm rested most of their starters as Sue Bird, Camille Little and Tanisha Wright did not play in the second half.
The Sparks shot a season-high 61 percent from the field.
Seattle coach Brian Agler wanted to evaluate other players and get ready for next season, but the finality of an early summer set in.
”What I told our team before the game was that we don’t like being where we’re at right now, but I was proud of how they battled down the stretch because we’ve had a very difficult season,” Agler said. ”A lot of teams would have self-destructed, and we didn’t.”
Parker and Toliver made back-to-back 3-pointers to cap an 11-4 run that put the game away in the fourth quarter. Seattle’s reserves kept it close and got to six points down early in the fourth on Alysha Clark’s drive before Parker completed a three-point play on a runner in the lane.
Sparks coach and general manager Penny Toler wasn’t entirely pleased with the win after her team committed 20 turnovers and allowed Seattle to nearly come back from 20 points down.
”We got a little careless with the ball, and I think we all know that’s not going to happen against Phoenix,” Toler said. ”You’ve got to come out and play every minute of the game. No matter who your opponent is, you have to come and give the same effort night in and night out.”
Seattle watched San Antonio win about 20 minutes before tip-off. The Sparks took an 18-4 lead to start the game and shot 20 for 29 in the first half. The 48 points were the most allowed by Seattle in the first half this season.
”The mood was flat,” O’Hea said. ”We had a lot of momentum going into this game – we won our last three games – so we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We knew some things had to go our way . we knew it wasn’t going to be. Brian came in and gave us a talk. We still want to keep getting better. We still want to finish the season off well for our fans, and for each other.”