Sparks spoil Brittney Griner’s WNBA return with blowout win

LOS ANGELES — In a WNBA season opener with Vice President Kamala Harris, Sparks owner Magic Johnson and Lakers head coach Darvin Ham in attendance, five Sparks scored in double figures, including rookie guard Zia Cooke with 14, in a 94-71 blowout win against Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena.

It was Griner’s first WNBA game since being jailed for nearly 10 months in Russia. Griner, who has been free since December when she was part of a high-profile prisoner swap, had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in 25 minutes.

All-Star forward Nneka Ogwumike had 17 points, four rebounds and three assists in 27 minutes to pace the Sparks. Sparks center Chiney Ogwumike, who was tasked with guarding Griner, finished with 15 points and a team-high seven rebounds in 25 minutes.

“September basketball in this league is so pretty and such an amazing product,” Sparks head coach Curt Miller said before the game. “In May, we’re all trying to find ourselves coming out of training camp.”

After trailing by 11 points early in the first quarter, the Sparks began to find themselves with back-to-back 3-pointers from guard Lexie Brown, who finished with 14 points (three 3-pointers) in 23 minutes and reserve forward Karlie Samuelson (13 points in 26 minutes off the bench). Samuelson was signed to a hardship contract Thursday, to fill the roster spot that would have been occupied by her sister Katie Lou, who is pregnant and expected to miss the season.

The Sparks trailed 22-19 at the end of the first quarter before Cooke helped turn things around.

Making her league debut in front of Dawn Staley, her former college coach at South Carolina, Cooke tied the score at 22 with the first points of her career on a three-point play. The 10th pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft then drilled a corner 3-pointer to tie the score again at 25. The 5-foot-9 guard scored all 14 of her points in the second quarter and finished 5 for 6 from the field (2 for 2 from behind the arc) and 2 for 2 from the free-throw line in 15 minutes off the bench. She also had two rebounds and two assists.

The Sparks took their first lead of the night at 30-28 when Samuelson made three free throws after being fouled early in the second quarter.

The Sparks outscored the Mercury 35-19 in the second quarter to build a 54-41 lead by halftime.

The Sparks extended their lead to 73-55 heading into the fourth quarter and coasted from there.

Diana Taurasi finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists for Phoenix, and Mercury point guard Moriah Jefferson had 16 points, four rebounds and four assists.

“For our situation, you’re trying to implement a whole new system, so we know it may not always look pretty or perfect tonight but we want to be fearless,” Miller explained. “We want to keep attacking. We never want to quit and we want to establish tonight what we’ve talked about and that’s our culture, that paper doesn’t win and we’re going to compete each and every night hard and then worry about what the scoreboard says at the end of the day because we know May basketball in this league is up and down to say the least.”

The Sparks will host the defending champion Las Vegas Aces next Thursday.

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