Sparks, Dream tantalize crowd

ATLANTA – A sellout crowd – heavily dotted with orange – was treated to a postseason-worthy performance between the Sparks and the Dream on Sunday as Los Angeles, behind 23 points from Candace Parker, defeated Atlanta, which was without the services of Chamique Holdsclaw because of a sore knee.

The absence of Chamique Holdsclaw was a disappointment to the Lady Vol fans in the crowd – and Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who was honored at halftime for achieving 1,000 career wins – but Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt of Los Angeles, Michelle Snow of Atlanta, Summitt and her staff courtside and the Lady Vol team gave them plenty of other orange reasons to cheer.

The game also lived up to expectations as a surging Sparks team, which has now won five games in a row, prevailed 91-87 over Atlanta, which entered the game with a three-game winning streak.

Los Angeles, 13-13, was on the outside looking in at playoff position just a week ago, but the Sparks have some breathing room now at No. 3 in the Western Conference with eight games left in the regular season, including a rematch against the Dream in Los Angeles on Sept. 1.

Atlanta, 14-12, is in a tie with Connecticut for second place in the Eastern Conference, a lofty spot for a second-year franchise that won just four games a year ago. The Dream missed Holdsclaw on Sunday, though rookie Angel McCoughtry started in her place – Holdsclaw tested her knee in warmups and was pulled from the lineup shortly before tipoff – and had 23 points, four rebounds and five steals.

Chamique Holdsclaw warms up before the game. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"I can't tell you how valuable this game is going to be for us down the line," Dream Coach Marynell Meadors said. "We were playing against five Olympians at the beginning of the game. I thought that we really played hard. Once we started moving, we started clicking a bit. … That's the good thing about this team. We have great balance and we have great depth.

"Did we give LA our best shot? No. Did LA give us their best shot? I think they did. So I think we learned a lot from this game and just the experience of being exposed to that level of talent and the type of game it was throughout the four quarters, I think it was a valuable lesson for us."

Los Angeles led 30-19 after the first period and started the second period with a three-pointer by Betty Lennox on an assist from Bobbitt to extend the lead to 33-19 just seconds into the second quarter, but Atlanta settled down and trailed by just six, 47-41, at halftime. Meadors said the team especially missed Holdsclaw in that first period.

"If we had her on the court, I think her leadership in the five or six minutes of the game, it would have settled people down," Meadors said. "This was the first time we have played without her and I think her presence and her leadership is so valuable for us."

Los Angeles, meanwhile, was getting production from Parker, who had nine points at halftime, and Lennox, who was 2-2 behind the arc and had 10 points in the first half against her old Dream team.

Parker finished with 23 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, a steal and an assist. She played nearly 37 minutes because of foul trouble for Lisa Leslie, who spoke to the crowd after the game and got a rousing cheer in her final season in the WNBA. Lennox added 14 points off the bench with eight rebounds and three assists.

Holdsclaw wanted to play against her former team – she retired from the WNBA after playing for the Sparks and came back this season – but the team opted to take a cautious approach with her knee, which she tweaked in the previous game.

Chamique Holdsclaw sits between Coaches Marynell Meadors and Carol Ross. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"We're just not taking any chances with her," Meadors said.

Holdsclaw will visit her doctor today – she had surgery on the knee last winter – and predicted she could be out for a couple days or a week, but it would depend on her physician's determination.

"It's just really, really sore," Holdsclaw said. "He'll tell me the plans that we have and see how it's going to go. He didn't want to play (Sunday), because it was really sore in areas that shouldn't be as tender. He told me to keep icing and doing my exercises and rest."

Holdsclaw's college coach spoke to the crowd after the game – Summitt noted how happy she was to see former Lady Vols and missed not having Holdsclaw play, and she also asked the fans to keep supporting the WNBA – and she visited in the locker room with Holdsclaw, who was disappointed that she had to be a spectator.

"Definitely," Holdsclaw said. "11,000 people here. That was my former team. I was a little disappointed, but my team went out there and played really well. You support the people that support you. It's always good to see (Summitt). I talked to her two days ago. She's always the same and always supportive. It's great to see her, great to see her happy and just enjoying life."

Both Parker and Holdsclaw noted the abundance of orange in the crowd – after the game Summitt saluted her current team and the orange-clad fans.

The current Lady Vol team waves at Pat Summitt. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Pat Summitt acknowledges a section of orange after the game. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Parker signed for dozens of fans both before and after the game.

Candace Parker signs autographs after the game as fans surged against the metal railings. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"They're a cult," Holdsclaw said. "They're everywhere."

Holdsclaw and Parker are Lady Vol legends who elevated women's college basketball. The All-Americans both led their teams to multiple national titles – three for Holdsclaw in four years and two for Parker in three years. Holdsclaw's No. 23 jersey has been retired, and Parker's No. 3 is likely the next one to hang in Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I love her game," Holdsclaw said. "She's 6'4 and out there really graceful. In basketball it changes. You have players every 10 years, along comes another player that takes the game to another level. With her now and a young player like Maya Moore, she's going to be the next player to take it to another level. But at 6'4 being able to handle the ball and do the things that she can do it's tremendous."

Despite missing the first eight games of the season – Parker gave birth in May to daughter Lailaa, who was courtside Sunday in the lap of her father, Shelden Williams – the 6'4 forward still leads the WNBA in double-doubles with nine. In her last five games Parker has averaged 15 points and 9.4 rebounds.

"I feel better," Parker said. "My legs are underneath me. I think a lot of it, honestly, a lot of it had to do with the pounding of it. The first five games my body wasn't ready for all that. My knee was sore. My shoulders were hurting. I think that had a lot to do with it. My feet and my quickness I feel like I am finally getting that back."

The Sparks reached .500 for the first time since June 8 after winning five in a row and now play the next four games – against Chicago, Phoenix, Connecticut and Atlanta – in Los Angeles. Evening their win-loss record has a psychological boost after being 8-13 a week ago.

"At this point, yes," Parker said. "Any other year I think we would be well out of the playoffs in the West, but fortunately a lot of other teams are losing as well and now we are going back home, which will be nice. It's always nice to get a win."

"It shows that we're going in the right direction, and it shows that our slump is over," Bobbitt said. "Being that we won five games it shows that we want to be a top team.

"We are all getting it together. The chemistry is coming. We know how to create mismatches. The point guards are getting better. We're making our shots. A lot of things are changing for us, and that's a good thing."

Bobbitt played nearly six minutes in the first half and hit a jumper with the shot clock expiring to account for her two points. She also had an assist, a steal and a rebound. Although she played limited minutes, they were effective, and she got a big hug from Summitt after the game. The coach also appeared to give Bobbitt a heartfelt pep talk.

Pat Summitt hugs Shannon Bobbitt after the game. Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood greet Candace Parker.(Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"I hadn't seen her in a long time, so seeing her it made my day," said Bobbitt, who blew kisses across the court at Summitt and her staff when she saw them. "She told me good game and she wished she could have seen me play a little more, and she was just happy I got the victory."

Bobbitt sat between Coaches Michael Cooper and Marianne Stanley on the bench and was intently engaged in the game.

Shannon Bobbitt keeps a close eye on the action Sunday with her coaches. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"Yes, I want to be a coach in the future but for the time being I have to be the best point guard I can be," Bobbitt said. "My IQ has to be at a high level, so that's why I sit by the coaches. They teach me the game. When it's my turn I'm going to have fun with it."

Bobbitt is energetic on the bench, too, and will leap up and wave a towel over her head for good plays.

Shannon Bobbitt waves a towel after a good play by the Sparks. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"My spirits stay up because I know my role on the team," Bobbitt said. "I know I have great point guards in front of me. I know what I can do best and what my role is, so that is why I have great spirits. I know this team is a great team. Everyone can score at any moment in the game so I just go with the flow. As long as we're all happy and we're winning a championship at the end of the day I'm happy."

The Sparks, Parker in particular, tend to play well when Summitt is in attendance, and Sunday was no exception.

"It was funny … I was at the free throw line extended, and I threw the ball in the post," Parker said. "And (a teammate) shot it (and missed). I could hear Pat in my head – she didn't say anything on the sideline – but I could hear her saying, ‘Go to the boards.' I ran back and thought, ‘Man, I know what she's thinking.' "

Danielle Donehew, a Dream executive, and the Lady Vol coaching staff watch Sunday's game. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"But it was really nice to play in front of Coach; it always is. It was Lady Vol night. I saw all orange in the crowd, which was really special. I have my orange outfit for after the game, so I'm really excited to be back here."

Candace Parker hugs Pat Summitt after the game. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Parker noted her enthusiasm to be back in the South on her Twitter page – Candace Parker – and specifically mentioned sweet tea and all the Lady Vol fans in attendance.

Four busloads of fans made the trip from Knoxville with the lure of four former Lady Vols on the two teams plus Summitt being honored. Dream executive Danielle Donehew, Summitt's former director of basketball operations at Tennessee, presented her with a Dream "1000" jersey in honor of her coaching milestone last season.

Danielle Donehew, a senior Dream executive, hugs Pat Summitt after the jersey presentation. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Parker and Snow both got post-game hugs from Summitt.

Candace Parker, left, and Michelle Snow, right, hug Pat Summitt after the game. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE for Getty Images)

"It's an honor that she's here today and to have so many of her players playing in the WNBA," Parker said. "That's a tribute in itself."

"It just shows we're a strong program," Holdsclaw said. "She's not only making great college players, she's making great pro players also."

Parker is getting closer to her rookie year form – she was the WNBA's MVP and ROY, an unprecedented double-double in the league – after missing training camp and the first month of this season for the birth of her daughter.

"I know I've made a conscious effort of rebounding the basketball," Parker said. "I felt like that was the only thing I could do at a certain point in time before my game started coming back, was to rebound, so it's just kind of carried over. I've had to become a more fundamental player. I'm used to using my athleticism. I've had to make a conscious effort to be fundamental – blocking out, things like that.

"Definitely not 100 percent; I'm getting there," Parker added. "Every game is about taking a step forward and I feel like I'm doing that. I'm about 80 to 85 percent right now. Come playoffs, it will be 100 percent."

"I'm excited and happy for her," Bobbitt said. "She is doing a great job. I expected her to get back quicker because she's an athlete."

Lailaa had a front row seat beside the Sparks bench on the lap of Williams, who made sure she had a bottle and a pacifier when need be. Parker likes the world her daughter will grow up in – mama on the court while daddy sits on the sideline, but it will be reversed when Williams joins the Boston Celtics for the NBA season.

Shelden Williams takes care of his daughter Lailaa on the sideline at Sunday's game. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"I'm liking it now," Parker said. "Come his season, I will be doing the same. I'm excited. It's so special to look over and see my little girl, and she really watches the game. She sees me and she's smiling."

Williams was one of several NBA players in attendance at the game. The others were Joe Johnson, Theo Ratliff, Joe Smith, Josh Smith and Lorenzen Wright.

The crowd witnessed an excellent game that wasn't decided until the final minute as the Sparks lost their lead – they were down 58-53 with five minutes left in the third period – but secured the win from the free throw line when the Dream were forced to foul in the final 50 seconds of the fourth period.

Iziane Castro Marques led Atlanta with 26 points, including five 3-pointers. Erika DeSouza also reached double figures with 13 points, and Ivory Latta added 10.

Noelle Quinn scored all 12 of her points in the second half for the Sparks, and Tina Thompson added another 12.

The Sparks won the battle of the boards, 42-31, shot 47.8 percent for the game and hit 21-25 from the line.

"I feel like we have all the pieces now," Parker said. "When I came back Lisa was out, when Lisa came back, Betty went out. So now we've all got a couple of games under our belt and we're playing together. We're all playing better."

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