NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Los Angeles Sparks coach Carol Ross said she used the game against the New York Liberty to gauge the talent and toughness of her team.
The Sparks proved themselves by routing the New York Liberty 85-67 Saturday for their fourth straight win.
“We now have a lot of quality players we can lean on,” Ross said. “When you get balanced scoring, it brings a lot of confidence and that’s what we have on our team now. We’re a tough team, and I don’t use the word tough loosely.”
Reserve forward Jantel Lavender paced the balanced scoring with 18 points for the Sparks, who opened their five-game road swing with a loss to Tulsa on Aug. 2, then finished with the four straight wins.
Lavender, who made 9-of-13 shots, helped put the game away with three corner jumpers in the fourth quarter. She added eight rebounds, in her second straight game scoring 18 points.
“I’m so proud of Jantel Lavender,” said Ross of the former Ohio State star. “She’s really stepped it up big. But I can’t say enough about this team effort. I’m real proud of the way they stayed focused.”
Cappie Pondexter led the Liberty (9-13) with 22 points and Plenette Pierson added 12, the only New York players in double figures.
Kristi Toliver scored 10 of her 16 points in the first quarter for the Sparks (16-7).
“The coaches told me to be aggressive today, so that’s what I did,” said Toliver, who made 7-of-12 from the floor. “Lately, we’ve been deadly outside and been able to make plays. It’s definitely a good feeling, because we struggled for a bit, but we’ve continued to grow and progress as a team.”
Lindsey Harding added 12 points for Los Angeles, which shot 52 percent from the field.
Candace Parker had 12 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in her second game back after missing three games with a wrist injury.
“We’re hitting our stride, but we certainly haven’t peaked yet,” Parker said. “It’s definitely a good sign when we get production from everyone. Our bench has been playing well. This road trip was tough with all the adversity we had to go through, but we fought back and won four straight.”
Pondexter said the Sparks have several offensive options.
“They’re a good team with a lot of depth and a high skill set,” she said. “They have a lot of players who can score, a lot of people who can get it done. We’re just too inconsistent right now. You never know what team you’re going to get.”
The Sparks sent an early offensive message, with Toliver making a 3-pointer to finish the first quarter for a 23-13 lead.
“It was nice to finish the quarter well,” Toliver said. “That’s the way we wanted to play coming out. Set the tone and get the lead.”
The Liberty scored the first four points of the second quarter on inside moves from Kara Braxton and rookie Kelsey Bone, slicing the lead to 23-17.
But the Sparks later outscored the Liberty 8-2 over a 1:25 span to take a 33-21 lead with six minutes left in the first half. Harding hit three long-range jumpers during that span.
The Sparks maintained a comfortable lead for the rest of the first half, taking a 39-30 lead into intermission on a jumper by Toliver.
The Liberty shot just 29 percent (11-for-37) from the floor in the first half, compared to nearly 50 percent (17-of-35) for the Sparks.
Pondexter drained a 3-pointer with 5:39 left in the third period to bring New York within 47-42, but Lavender responded with a corner jumper to stretch the lead.
Parker connected on four straight free throws and Lavender had two consecutive layups, capping a 10-0 run and giving Los Angeles a 59-44 lead.
Parker made two more free throws to push the lead to 67-51 after three periods. She made all six of her free throws in the quarter.
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