LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stop thinking and trying to find other players, just shoot. That’s what the Sparks coaching staff drilled into Kristi Toliver’s head.
The message got through loud and clear.
Toliver tied her career high with 29 points, going 12 of 17 from the floor, and Los Angeles led all the way in defeating the New York Liberty 97-89 on Thursday to improve to 7-0 at home.
“The past week my coaches have really gotten on me about having the green light and really shooting the ball,” she said. “Just be myself, be aggressive offensively and score the ball. That’s what I did. I don’t have a conscience. I just tried to do what was asked and what naturally comes. Just playing loose and free.”
Candace Parker added 20 points and Nneka Ogwumike had 15 points in helping the Sparks dominate through the first three quarters while extending their regular-season winning streak at Staples Center to 17 games.
The victory moved the Sparks within a half-game of Minnesota and Phoenix, which are tied atop the West standings. Los Angeles closes out its three-game homestand against fifth-place San Antonio on Saturday.
“There’s certainly a comfort level,” Sparks coach Carol Ross said about playing at home. “We got to make sure we don’t get too comfortable.”
The team is 0-4 on the road, which Parker attributes to their mindset.
“When we come into a home game, we expect to win,” she said. “On the road we talk ourselves into hope. It’s two different teams for sure.”
Cappie Pondexter scored 34 points to lead the Liberty, who lost their second straight and fourth in their last five. New York fell to 1-5 on the road. The Sparks’ 40 field goals were the most given up by the Liberty this season.
“Five more minutes we probably would have won the game,” Pondexter said.
She was coming off a 5 for 14 shooting performance in a 94-87 loss at Phoenix on Tuesday. That drew the ire of Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, who drew on his tough-guy reputation in a talk with Pondexter.
“I asked her, `When are you going to show up for a change?”‘ he recalled. “She did it. It’s been coming. She’s been working really hard. It’s just that she had to get that confidence about herself first. We can’t do it for her.”
Pondexter, the leading vote getter for the WNBA All-Star game among Eastern guards, said she learned from her previous game.
“I kind of made some adjustments, mentally more than anything,” she said. “I’m ready to get going.”
Parker scored the game’s first six points in opening up a lead that the Sparks never relinquished. Toliver picked up her offense with 12 points in the second quarter, including eight in a row. The Sparks then ran off 12 straight points to take a 60-37 halftime lead.
Their 27-point lead in the second quarter was the largest of the game. Los Angeles shot 64 percent from the field for the game and outscored the Liberty 18-6 in fastbreak points.
“The second quarter was obviously a low point for us. They kind of got going,” Pondexter said. “I haven’t seen a team shoot like that in a very long time. Every player was very efficient. But we fought our way back in and made it a competitive game in the second half. That’s a positive to take from it.”
Toliver scored 10 of the Sparks’ 21 points in the third, when they extended their lead to 81-59. Pondexter had 12 points in the quarter, but the Liberty never got closer than 18.
“When she’s on like that it’s really beautiful to watch,” Parker said about Toliver, who was the WNBA’s most improved player last season.
New York outscored Los Angeles 30-16 in the fourth, but time ran out on the Liberty’s late comeback.
“We just let up,” Parker said. “Our defense wasn’t there and we weren’t hitting shots. That was a little glance of how we play on the road.”
The Sparks were coming off a 96-66 win over Minnesota at home on Tuesday and for a while it looked as though they’d end up with another blowout victory.
“We were better in the first half than we were in the second,” Toliver said. “That’s when we’re at our best — when we’re able to rebound and run, so the more we can do that and get our stops the better.”
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