Sparks can't match Atlanta Dream's fourth-quarter surge, drop season opener

LONG BEACH, CA - MAY 15, 2024: Los Angeles Sparks forward Cameron Brink (22) drives to the basket against Atlanta Dream forward Nia Coffey (12) in the first half at Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State on May 15, 2024 in Long Beach, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody would budge through the first three quarters. The Sparks would go on a run, the Atlanta Dream would respond with one of their own, and vice versa. They were deadlocked at 66 going into the fourth quarter of the teams' season opener Wednesday night, neither giving the other any breathing room. Then, the fourth quarter happened.

Cheyenne Parker-Tyus and Crystal Dangerfield hit back-to-back layups to open the fourth. Then Rhyne Howard made some free throws and followed them with a three. All of a sudden, the Dream were up double digits before the Sparks scored in the final period.

“Basketball is a game of runs,” guard Kia Nurse said of the Sparks' fourth-quarter cold streak. “We kind of just weren’t going. We didn’t hit enough shots in that situation and defensively, we didn’t get stops … That’ll be something we look at on film just to say where we could have been better in that situation, knowing that that’s something you can fix.”

There were moments of life, a huge three-pointer from rookie Cameron Brink to bring the Sparks within six with a minute to go, but that was as close as they would get. The Dream held on to earn a 92-81 win at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. The venue seats 5,000 people, and the Sparks announced the contest was sold out.

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“I take it as my responsibility that a lot of the starters got tired at the end of the third quarter. I had to substitute more players at one time in the start of the fourth quarter than I would’ve liked,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said after the game. “Ultimately, it was a hard situation to dig out of, but we never quit. We really battled and showed our scrappiness that we’re going to be defined by this year.”

Dearica Hamby paced the young Sparks with 20 points and 14 rebounds, while point guard Layshia Clarendon finished with a first career triple-double — 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Brink finished with 11 points, four assists and two blocks in her WNBA debut, but early foul trouble limited her impact. During the second possession of the game, Brink found Clarendon, who hit a three-pointer for the Sparks’ first points. Brink then cut inside to get an easy layup for her first professional points. The hot start propelled the Sparks to an early 9-2 lead.

Brink quickly ran into foul trouble after that, however, and the Dream took advantage of her absence in the paint to tie the game by the end of the first quarter.

“Cam has to find a way to stay out of foul trouble because she’s so important to what we’re doing,” Miller said. “She’s a really good distributor of the ball as a 6-5 person, so she can create opportunities for her teammates. Defensively, she’s great rim protection but when you play three minutes in the first stretch and have to sit down, that’s a big blow. … Really solid start for her, we just got to keep her on the floor longer.”

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For all the hype that comes with the Sparks’ two top-four draft picks, Miller said the young and often overlooked team still is working to establish itself.

“Overall, it is a disappointing result because I thought we played well enough in stretches to win this game,” Miller said. “But what a great start, in a lot of ways, on what we’re trying to build as a culture in how we’re playing and sharing [the ball] and moving it. So, something to grow from tonight.”

Whatever work the Sparks have left to do, it won’t get any easier from here as they travel to the desert Saturday to take on the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.