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Liberty fall for first time this season in overtime loss to Sparks

Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks

Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks defends against Tina Charles #31 of the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden on May 21, 2016 in New York City. Photo Credit: Mike Stobe

There’s a hope somewhere down the line, if the Liberty and Sparks play to their potential and have to meet again when the stakes are higher, that experience will in fact turn out to be the best teacher.

That’s what Tina Charles hopes. And though no one — especially someone as doggedly competitive as Charles — likes to lose, last night’s 79-72 overtime loss to the Sparks at Madison Square Garden did provide the Liberty with some simple but necessary reminders.

1. Athleticism can get you only so far if you don’t execute the plays as they’re drawn.

2. Don’t leave Kristi Toliver open, no matter how many times she’s missed that shot.

3. Definitely don’t leave Nneka Ogwumike open; she doesn’t miss all that much at all.

Ogwumike’s three-point play, followed by Toliver’s left-wing three-pointer — a shot from a spot where she had been missing all night — helped erase the Liberty’s eight-point fourth-quarter lead in the waning seconds of regulation.

In overtime, it was more of the same. Ogwumike hit an open three-pointer with 2:32 left to give the Sparks a 71-70 lead and followed it up with a layup before Toliver’s step-back jumper helped the Sparks outscore the Liberty 14-7 in the extra frame.

“It’s just a learning curve,” said Charles, who had 17 points and 16 rebounds and shot 8-for-23. “[We have] to learn from it and keep on moving — focus on closing out games.”

Ogwumike scored 25 points and Candace Parker had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Essence Carson, playing against her old team for the first time, scored four points for the Sparks (3-0). Sugar Rodgers had nine for the Liberty (2-1).

For a team that has made no secret about gunning for a championship, Saturday’s loss was disheartening, even this early in the season. Coach Bill Laimbeer insisted gaffes like the ones the Liberty made “can’t happen if we want to be a great team and compete for a championship.”

“We have to learn to execute,” he said. “I think we lost a little bit of composure down the stretch, and that can’t happen.”

The Liberty went from shooting 29.4 percent in the first quarter to 34.3 percent by halftime — hardly earth-shattering, but along with going 9-for-11 from the line, it gave them enough juice to go into the break tied at 34. They outscored the Sparks 16-11 in a third quarter that was more or less the WNBA version of a war of attrition: two physical, defensive juggernauts trying not to lose for the first time.

The tenor changed slightly in the fourth, when the Liberty was able to gain some traction. Tanisha Wright scored five of her 10 points in the frame and Rodgers hit a trey with 2:11 left in regulation for a 63-55 lead.

But the Sparks scored 10 of the last 12 points of the fourth, punctuated by Toliver’s three-pointer. That tied the score at 65, and after Charles missed an open-look jumper with time expiring, it went to overtime.

“It should have been our game,” Laimbeer said. “We had the game won. We had a test of wills and give them credit, they won the game. We kind of handed it to them down the stretch but overall, they played good enough basketball.”

Lesson learned.

New York Sports