If the WNBA season were to end today, Seattle (10-15) would earn the eighth and final playoff spot.
Los Angeles’ celebratory fist pumping and smiles quickly turned to pounding the basketball into the KeyArena court in anger and sneers.
The league-leading Sparks’ post-Olympics story line didn’t include four personal fouls before halftime on MVP candidate Nneka Ogwumike. And it didn’t envision fighting to overcome a double-digit deficit against a Seattle team grasping at its first playoff berth in three years.
Yet that’s how the upset unfolded Friday, the Storm winning 79-72 before 9,481 in attendance. If the WNBA season were to end today, Seattle (10-15) would earn the eighth and final playoff spot.
“It’s surprising because we didn’t have the best offensive night. It was all about defense for us,” said guard Jewell Loyd, who finished with 15 points, seven assists and five steals with just one turnover.
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Both teams had key players participate in the Olympic Games in Rio. But the Storm had the only American Olympians in gold medal winners Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart.
“I think we sat around for six weeks and everybody told us how good we were and I think we softened up,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said.
While Stewart and Bird starred in Brazil, Storm coach Jenny Boucek and her staff held two stints of practice sessions. An emphasis was defensive rebounding and building on-court chemistry.
Against Los Angeles, the Storm limited the Sparks to five offensive rebounds. Storm center Crystal Langhorne was an anchor, muscling Ogwumike into frustration while scoring a team-leading 16 points with 10 rebounds. It was Langhorne’s first double-double of the season.
“Rebounding the ball has been a huge problem for us all season,” Langhorne said. “I (also) wanted to be a little bit more aggressive and get our defense intact.”
Bird opened the game with a three-pointer and put the Storm up 22-11 in first quarter with her third of the half. Quick defensive hands by Loyd helped the Storm sustain a lead when its offense stalled in the second quarter.
Ogwumike (28 points and seven rebounds) was called for a technical foul for chucking the ball into the front row seats with 5:11 left in the second quarter, upset at a previous offensive foul. She was tagged for her fourth foul with 4:32 left before halftime.
The script called for an L.A. takeover in the second half. The Sparks (21-4) clinched a playoff berth prior to the Olympics. However, the Storm simply extended its lead to 13 points (47-34). Langhorne sealed the win by making two foul shots.