The Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces look to gain the inside track on a bye to the second-round of the playoffs Saturday night when the top-four teams square off in a critical game at Mandalay Bay.
The Sparks (19-11) lead the Aces (19-12) by one-half game for third, which carries a bye into the second round in the WNBA's stepladder playoff format. Both teams are also trying to fend off the fifth-place Chicago Sky in their bid to claim a top-four spot and that bye.
The Aces have been stewing since capping a winless three-game road swing with an 86-71 loss to the Indiana Fever on Tuesday night. A'ja Wilson scored 18 points and Kelsey Plum added 17 off the bench, but any chance of claiming a double bye into the semifinals as one of the top two seeds appears to have been lost - Las Vegas is 2 1/2 games behind second-place Connecticut with three remaining.
"Adversity reveals character," Plum told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "This league is the best in the world. Everyone wants to come out and show how good they are. We've got to punch back."
Looking to add veteran leadership and backcourt depth, the Aces signed two-time All-Star Epiphanny Prince on Wednesday for at least the remainder of the season. The 31-year-old Prince - who has yet to see action this season -- had played under coach Bill Laimbeer previously with the New York Liberty from 2015-17 and has averaged 13.3 points while shooting 37.2 percent from 3-point range.
"It's definitely an added benefit," Aces general manager Dan Padover said of Prince's familiarity with Laimbeer. "More than anything, we wanted a WNBA player that can soak everything in practice and help out her teammates and be available if called upon. She's a proven WNBA player - that was our biggest need."
Los Angeles is going for a season sweep of Las Vegas and a winning record to its three-game road swing after fending off Indiana 87-83 on Thursday night. Chelsea Gray scored 20 of her career-high 30 points in the third quarter, hitting five of her franchise record-tying seven 3-pointers as the Sparks erupted for 33 points to erase a nine-point halftime deficit.
"You're at the point in the season where people are really fighting for life or death," Nneka Ogwumike said post-game according to The Orange County Register after a contest that featured 49 combined personal fouls. "It's going to be physical from here on out. We just have to maintain our composure as best we can."
While the Sparks still have an outside chance at overtaking the Sun for second to gain the double bye, first-year coach Derek Fisher does not seem all that preoccupied with getting there with the veteran make-up of his team.
"It's good for us to still have the goal of having to fight for every game, try to move up the standings as much as possible," he said. "But at the same time, we have a core group of players, they've seen it all. They've been the 1 seed, the 2 seed, the team that had to figure out how to win on the road. So we're not fearful of any situation."
Both of the Sparks' wins over the Aces have come at home, including a 76-68 victory Aug. 1 in which Ogwumike had 19 points and 11 rebounds.