WASHINGTON (AP) - On a night when it would have been understandable if her game was off, Candace Parker proved to be the difference maker.
Parker scored 19 points, including the go-ahead basket with 38.9 seconds remaining in overtime, to help the Los Angeles Sparks beat the Washington Mystics 86-82 on Tuesday night.
Tina Thompson finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Sparks (12-15), winners of two straight and three of five since Parker returned from a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee on August 16.
``We started off very well and then we didn't play well,' said Parker, who scored 14 points in the second half and also finished with nine rebounds and five assists. ``It was a game of lead changes and runs. We were able to come out on top. It was an ugly game, very ugly.'
The Sparks scored the game's first seven points and led 53-41 in the third quarter, only to watch the Mystics rally. The lead changed six times in the extra session, the final time coming when Parker slithered through the defense for a layup to put the Sparks ahead 81-80.
``When the game is tight, (Parker) takes it upon herself to put the team on her shoulders and score,' said Mystics forward Nicky Anosike, Parker's teammate at the University of Tennessee. ``I wasn't surprised by that, but that's when you really have to step up the D.'
Matee Ajavon missed a layup on the Mystics next possession before Parker and Thompson combined to sink five of six free throws to seal the victory. The Sparks finished 18 of 26 from the free throw line.
``We started making some free throws down the stretch and got some big defensive stops a couple time, that was big,' said Sparks coach Joe Bryant.
Crystal Langhorne scored 28 points and Ajavon added 14 for the Mystics (5-21), who have lost a season-high six straight games.
Parker played the game after learning earlier on Tuesday that her college coach Pat Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia.
``We just have mad love for coach Summitt and we're a family, we're going to have to deal with it,' said a stoic Parker. ``I don't think she is going to let it affect her. I think she is going to continue on coaching as long as she can. She came out with (the news) and now we're going to move forward.'
Anosike, who scored five points in 19 minutes, was somber in the losing locker room. She said the two players learned of the news this morning and then spoke after the game.
``I think we're both a little messed up by it,' Anosike said.
Bryant, unaware of Summitt's condition until asked by a reporter to comment about Parker's performance under the circumstances, said the All-Star forward is rounding back into shape after missing 15 games.
``No matter how much training you do or therapy you do, it's still different than running up and down the court,' Bryant said. ``She is starting to get her legs under her and her wind. She's a special player.'
Parker scored 10 consecutive points, seven coming after halftime, and the Sparks opened the second half with a 12-4 run for their largest lead of the game. The Mystics broke off a 13-2 spurt to go up 65-64 with 5:16 remaining.
Tied at 71 entering the final minute of regulation, both sides committed turnovers and Ticha Penicheiro missed a potential game-winning jumper.
The Mystics defeated the Sparks in Los Angeles 89-85 on July 17, rallying with a 24-point comeback in the second half. Since then the losses have mounted - 11 in 13 games.
``It's been the same story pretty much all season, not pulling out games toward the end,' Anosike said. ``I keep saying we're going to turn it around, but its either now or never.'
The Associated Press News Service
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