LOS ANGELES — Nneka Ogwumike scored 19 points to lead five starters in double figures, and the Los Angeles Sparks opened defense of their WNBA championship with a 79-66 victory over the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the semifinals.
Candace Parker added 15 points while playing with five fouls. Ogwumike overcame four fouls. Chelsea Gray had 13 points, Odyssey Sims 12 and Alana Beard 11.
Leilani Mitchell led the Mercury with 19 points and made five 3-pointers, both career playoff highs. Brittney Griner added 18 points before fouling out with 4:44 left in the game. Diana Taurasi went 2 of 10 from the floor for a career playoff low six points.
After trailing much of the first half, the Sparks pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring Phoenix 14-6 to lead 56-48.
Things got testy with 28 seconds left in the period. Phoenix’s Emma Cannon and the Sparks’ Essence Carson were called for double technicals after exchanging words. Before that, Phoenix’s Camille Little was called for a blocking foul, with Parker on the floor with her legs in the air and her arms protecting her face.
Parker’s 3-pointer in the fourth gave Los Angeles its first double-digit lead of the game at 61-50. The Mercury closed to 70-63 on Little’s basket.
Ogwumike completed a three-point play sandwiched around Parker’s free throw on a technical to Little that pushed the Sparks’ lead to 74-63.
The Mercury had to win back-to-back elimination games in order to make the semifinals for the eighth time in nine years. The Sparks came in well-rested, having had the last eight days off.
Los Angeles, which won the final seven games of the regular season, appeared rusty to start, falling behind by eight while Griner scored her first six points.
The Sparks didn’t take their first lead of the game until late in the second quarter on Parker’s 3-pointer. It was short-lived, and the teams went into halftime tied 42-all.
Parker and Ogwumike combined for 5 of 13 shooting in the first half. ... Parker rolled her ankle during pre-game warm-ups.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Long Beach.