Taylor free throws lift Mercury over Sparks 78-77
PHOENIX (AP) — The Phoenix Mercury picked up where they left off.
Penny Taylor hit two free throws with 1.5 seconds left to lift the defending WNBA champions to a 78-77 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in the league's season opener Saturday.
After Diana Taurasi made two free throws to give Phoenix a 76-75 lead with 17.8 seconds left, Noelle Quinn hit a 12-foot bank shot to put the Sparks back in front with 4.7 seconds to go.
That's when Phoenix coach Corey Gaines set up an inbounds play for Taylor to drive to the basket.
"Corey drew up a really good play, and I don't think they were expecting it to go to me," the veteran from Australia said. "(I) had an open layup and drew the defense, and, luckily, I got fouled and luckily the two free throws went in."
Taylor caught the ensuing long inbounds pass and held the ball until the buzzer.
"Losing by one is almost devastating," said Sparks guard Ticha Penicheiro, who came to Los Angeles from Sacramento in the dispersal draft after the Monarchs folded. "They are the champions. We're playing in their house, on opening night, so I felt like we did well, unfortunately we couldn't get the W."
Taurasi scored five of her 14 points in the final five minutes for the Mercury, Candice Dupree had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Taylor added 16 points.
With players having just arrived from their overseas clubs, neither team had its full complement in the week leading up to the game. Some of the Sparks players didn't arrive until earlier in the week and Gaines said his team had been together less than 48 hours before Saturday's tip.
"(We're) a little rusty," he said. "Twenty-two turnovers is not like us. It's going to take a little time for us to jell, it's a different type of team."
Candace Parker scored 24 points for the Sparks, including a key basket in the final minute, and grabbed 12 rebounds.
The teams were tied at 70 with three minutes left, and Los Angeles took a 75-72 lead on Parker's leaner with 55 seconds left. Tameka Johnson's layup cut it to 75-74, and Parker missed a 16-footer with 24 seconds to go.
Tina Thompson fouled Taurasi 7 seconds later.
Phoenix had an advantage at the free throw line, making 24 of 31, while the Sparks were 10 of 16.
"We had to stop fouling," Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said. "At halftime they had scored 19 points from the free throw line and we had four. That was the difference in the game. We just had to keep our composure and keep them off the free throw line."
Rookie Andrea Riley added 16 points and DeLisha Milton-Jones had 10 for Los Angeles.
"The system is new to everybody," Penicheiro said. "Because Coach Jen just took over so it's just a matter of time, sometimes it's hard to jell from Day 1."
Gillom, who took over after Michael Cooper left for Southern California, returned to the team where she spent the first six years of her WNBA career as one of its original, and most beloved, players.
"I think people just forgot that it was me coaching on the sideline," she said. "They were just enjoying a great game."
Phoenix opened up a 10-point lead in the third quarter, but Los Angeles ran off nine straight points to keep it close. Parker scored eight in the period that ended tied at 61.
The Mercury finished the half on a 12-0 run to take a 42-35 lead at the break. Phoenix had to overcome a quick start by Parker, who made her first five shots and grabbed five rebounds in helping the Sparks lead 23-19 after the first quarter.
The Mercury received their championship rings before the game. They beat Los Angeles 2-1 in last season's Western Conference finals and topped Indiana 3-2 in the WNBA Finals for their second title in three years.