- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Batman drove the Los Angeles Sparks off their home court on Thursday night. And the Caped Crusader very nearly drove them to the edge of elimination.
The Sparks salvaged what could have been a very costly loss at USC's Galen Center with a couple superhero performances of their own.
Kristi Toliver scored 29 points and Candace Parker added 25, including six free throws in the final 35 seconds, to lift Los Angeles to a 93-86 win over San Antonio to open the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals.
For the majority of the game, it looked like the 16-1 record that Los Angeles amassed on its home floor this season was going to be neutralized by a trip down the 110 freeway to USC's home gym. The Sparks were displaced by a Thursday night performance of "Batman Live," a traveling superhero show at the Staples Center.
And for a long while, they were displaced on the scoreboard by a Silver Stars squad that had already won three of four matchups this season and was feeling the groove offensively.
San Antonio built a 60-50 lead in the third quarter, was ruling the paint and outrebounding one of the league's toughest teams on the boards before Parker got out of the doghouse and back into the game.
Parker was banished to the bench for a long stretch of the third quarter by Sparks coach Carol Ross for what Parker admits was a lackluster rebounding effort.
"I know it wasn't a rest," Parker said. "Coach was upset at me for lack of rebounding, which she should have been. There were a lot of rebounds that [San Antonio's] Jayne Appel got, that Danielle Adams got, that I have to get. She didn't say anything. She just took me out and I understood why and was able to come back in and rebound a little bit better."
When Parker came back in with 3 minutes, 31 seconds to go in the third quarter, she simply saved the day.
Parker scored 15 points from that point on and led a 10-2 charge to the finish that took the score from an 84-83 deficit to the seven-point margin of victory.
Toliver, the league's newly crowned most improved player, kept the Sparks close enough to make their comeback with her stellar day. Toliver was 8-of-10 from the floor, hit 3-of-4 3-point attempts and was 10-of-10 from the line.
She put the Sparks ahead with 1:47 to play with a 3-pointer and then gave her team the lead for good with a pair of free throws with 45.8 seconds left before ceding the spotlight to Parker, who was 6-of-6 from the line in the final 34.5 seconds and pulled down a pair of key rebounds.
"You expect great players to rise up and assert themselves, and Candace really did that," Ross said. "She can play better, certainly, but she played big when it mattered most."
Ross was proud of the way her team finally found its spark, but not thrilled with losing it in the first place. Ross said her team did not start out with focus or energy, coming off a weeklong layoff.
"The theme that was recurring for the first 2½ quarters is that we were doing what was easy," Ross said. "And you're in the playoffs. You can't do what's easy. You have to do what's right. And sometimes it's very difficult to do the right thing.
"Driving in is harder than shooting a jump shot. Switching is a lot easier than sticking with your person and getting the right matchup. We fell into a place we didn't want to be and the players did a great job of fighting their way out of it."
Now it is the Stars who will have to battle out of a bad spot, down 1-0 and knowing they have to come back, win at home and then add a victory in Los Angeles to advance.
The Silver Stars will spend a lot of time in the next 24 hours looking at the disparity in the free throw column on the box score. In a game that featured 18 lead changes and 11 ties, a 32-11 differential stands out.
"We didn't get to the free throw line. I thought we were aggressive and I thought we attacked well and we just didn't get rewarded," said Stars guard Becky Hammon, who recovered from a slow start to finish with 19 points. "That's the game."
Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes pointed out that his team fouled less than any in the league this season, and added that he would be checking the tape to see where they failed to be more aggressive, the imbalance clearly sticking in his craw.
"The story of it is, I thought we did a lot of things we needed to do and it's 32-11 at the line," Hughes said. "I have to see why we fouled so much. That discrepancy is the story as I look at the game."
As much as this game looked like a must-win for the Sparks, it was a huge opportunity lost for San Antonio.
"I really thought we gave that one away," Hammon said. "I thought we came in here and competed well, they got some momentum and we weren't able to get it back. We had kept them in check, but some of their players hit some tough shots. But I definitely think we dropped it."
The series returns to San Antonio for Saturday's Game 2 (3 p.m. ET), where the Silver Stars are also put out of their home court at the AT&T Center thanks to a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. The game will instead be played at Freeman Coliseum.
"At least it could have been somebody from the '60s," Hughes lamented.
But at least it wasn't Batman.
14dBonnie D. Ford