Sunday, July 15, 2018 | 6:48 p.m.
A recent four-game winning streak propelled the Las Vegas Aces into the WNBA playoff picture, but the young team didn’t quite look ready for prime time on Sunday, as they dropped a winnable home contest to the Los Angeles Sparks, 99-78.
Los Angeles forward Candace Parker showed the Aces what champions are made of, as she scored 13 of her 34 points in the final quarter to blow open a close game. The Sparks outscored Las Vegas, 35-15, over the final 10 minutes.
Las Vegas had no chance of keeping pace with Parker, as star rookie A’ja Wilson faded down the stretch. Wilson went 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, lost her verve and was benched for the final five minutes as L.A. ran away with the game.
Head coach Bill Laimbeer said the loss was due to a lack of mental toughness, and he didn’t hold back in dealing Wilson her share of the responsibility.
“After the game I made it very clear to [Wilson] and the team that she can’t put her head down like that,” Laimbeer said. “It was clear to everybody on our team, everybody in the gym that she missed a couple shots, she disengaged from the game, dragged the rest of us down and for our undisputed leader of our ballclub, that cannot happen.”
The Aces came into the day just 1.5 games out of the WNBA’s eighth and final playoff spot. The loss dropped Las Vegas to 10-13 on the year, while the eighth-place Connecticut Sun (12-10) won to increase their lead over Las Vegas to 2.5 games.
The Aces’ chances looked good early in the fourth quarter, when Wilson made a spin move in the lane and scored on a scoop shot to give Las Vegas a 67-66 lead with 8:44 to play. But a 3-point play by Sparks’ center Nneka Ogwumike and a 3-pointer by Chelsea Gray gave L.A. a 72-67 lead, and Parker took over from there.
Wilson missed an elbow jumper at the other end, and while she pleaded her case for a foul call, Parker dribbled upcourt and drilled a long 3-pointer to make it 75-67 with 7:08 to play. Wilson missed another jumper a minute later, and Parker countered immediately with another 3; Wilson missed again on the Aces’ ensuing possession, and Laimbeer subbed her out at the next stoppage with Los Angeles leading, 82-69.
Parker then finished things off with a driving layup, a beautiful one-handed putback and another long 3-pointer, extending the Sparks’ lead to 92-72 before subbing out for the final two minutes. The 2016 Finals MVP finished 12-of-21 from the field, 5-of-8 from 3-point range and added 11 rebounds and nine assists.
Wilson finished with 15 points on 6-of-20 shooting and admitted she didn’t bring her best effort in the fourth quarter.
“For us, we mentally lost it,” Wilson said. “And I will take full blame for it. I was not engaged the way that I needed to be engaged and it showed. I can’t afford to do that…Down the stretch it was all about mental toughness and I take all the blame for it because I was not there.”
Las Vegas will need a better performance from Wilson on Thursday, when the team heads to Phoenix to take on the Mercury, who currently sit in second place with a record of 15-8. There are 11 games remaining in the regular season.
Laimbeer said he was confident that Wilson will bounce back quickly and made it clear that he coaches Wilson harder because he wants to get the most out of her.
“I’m asking more of her than I’ve asked of any player,” Laimbeer said. “She’s one hell of a player. She’s damn near the best in this league. It’s just that I want more and I won’t let that happen in any game, any minute, any time. But make no mistake, I love A’ja Wilson, I’ll put her right back in the game tomorrow because we need her.”
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected] Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.