Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream puts up a shot in traffic. Photo by Mary Holt
Photo: Mary Holt
Photo: Mary Holt

Dream clamp down to beat Sparks

It’s no surprise that the Dream would have a day like Saturday, when scoring was so often a struggle, but Atlanta put the clamps on the Los Angeles Sparks and topped the defending WNBA champions 75-73 by defending.

Emerging scorer Tiffany Hayes put up 24 points, continuing to grow her game in the absence of dynamic scorer Angel McCoughtry as she takes the season off after playing last season, helping the USA win an Olympic gold medal in Brazil, and then playing professionally in Russia over the winter.

Yet, beyond Hayes (7-of-12 from the field, 9-of-11 at the free-throw line), the rest of the Dream (3-1) combined for 21-of-51.

That left pressure on the defense, which for three quarters stifled the Sparks (3-2).

The Dream had 10 steals in the first half on the way to limiting WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike to 15 points in the game while WNBA Finals MVP Candace Parker went for but six, on 3-of-11 shooting. Los Angeles made just over 41 percent of its shots, and Atlanta also turned 21 LA turnovers into 22 points.

Minus McCoughtry, Atlanta’s defense has to pick up slack. Head coach Michael Cooper brings that up often.

“Coach Coop’s really open and honest about that. Our defense is what we want to fuel our offense,” point guard Layshia Clarendon said after banking a game-high 12 assists with nine points and three steals. “I think getting Nneka in foul trouble was really huge … we did run some plays for the person she was guarding to attack.

“They play so well off each other, and Candace had to play without Nneka for a while … so she wasn’t in the game wreaking havoc on the boards.”

Pounding the Sparks in the paint, where Atlanta forged a 44-22 advantage, was key, and Atlanta was quite actively defensively at the other end. LA was forced into shot-clock violations on three consecutive possessions early in the third quarter, when the Dream turned a 32-29 deficit into a 51-44 lead.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been coaching where we got three shot clock violations in a row, so that tells you that we have to rely a lot on our defense,” said Cooper, who has twice been head coach of the Sparks, including when they won the first of their three WNBA titles, in 2002.

For several stretches Saturday, the Dream scrambled the Sparks’ offensive plans.

“They set a lot of screens for [Ogwumike and Parker], and they do for each other,” explained Atlanta center Elizabeth Williams, who scored 10 points and pulled a game-high nine rebounds. “We had to talk a lot and be disruptive, have our hands in passing lanes.”

Still, the visitors tied the score at 67-67 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Sparks guard Chelsea Gray (25 points).

With 2:30 left in the game, the Dream began finding some offensive rhythm, and the free-throw line.

Atlanta scored four of its final eight points from there, three by Hayes and one by Clarendon, sandwiched around short-range baskets by Williams and Clarendon.

Critically, Clarendon also stole a Ogwumike pass inside the final minute, and Williams blocked a Parker shot out of bounds with eight seconds remaining.

Sancho Lyttle and Bria Holmes added 11 points each for the Dream, who made just 2-of-12 3-pointers and scored but nine points in the second quarter on 4-of-15 shooting.

After Gray intentionally missed a free throw with 6.8 seconds left, Hayes took the rebound and dribbled to the left corner before passing long to a teammate who dribbled out the clock.

The Dream seem to believe.

“[The Sparks] lace up their sneakers just like we lace up ours, so we just stuck to our game plan and went into the game and handled our business,” Hayes said in summary. “You know a team like that is not just going to lay down and die, so we had to come out with a mindset of defense first.”

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