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Free-falling Mystics drop sixth in a row, 81-64, to Sparks

The Sparks' Te'a Cooper, left, grabs a loose ball as Washington's Ariel Atkins and L.A.'s Nneka Ogwumike dive for it during the first half of Thursday's game. (Mike Carlson/AP)
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Ariel Atkins played Thursday like a woman absolutely disgusted with a five-game losing streak. Unfortunately for her, the rest of the Washington Mystics did not play with that same disgust.

The Los Angeles Sparks took their first lead at the 3:23 mark of the first quarter and never trailed again in an 81-64 victory in Bradenton, Fla. The loss was the defending champions’ sixth straight; the Sparks (6-3), expected to contend for a title, won their third in a row.

Atkins finished with a game-high 20 points and played with a visible edge from the outset. It wasn’t nearly enough. The Mystics (3-6) trailed 47-34 at halftime and things would have been much worse without the herculean efforts of Atkins, who had 16 points at intermission. The third-year guard scored in a variety of ways, hitting three-pointers, runners in the paint, pullup jumpers from midrange and even a buzzer-beating putback just before halftime.

“Trying to get a win, trying to be more aggressive for my team,” Atkins said tersely, “and find a way to play for something that’s bigger than us right now.”

Atkins shot 7 for 8 from the field in the first 20 minutes; her teammates went 7 for 27.

Emma Meesseman finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Mystics, and Myisha Hines-Allen added 10 points.

The Sparks used a 21-6 run in the first quarter to take an 11-point lead. They were led by Riquna Williams, who came off the bench and finished with a team-high 13 points.

The Los Angeles defense swarmed and forced Washington to shoot 40 percent from the field in the first half, including just 4 for 15 from three-point range. Even when the Los Angeles defense allowed the Mystics to have open looks, the Mystics couldn’t find the range — something Washington Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault complained about before the game.

“We’ve had some pretty good looks in our games,” Thibault said. “Got to make open shots. Can’t miss layups. But we need to keep working on reversing the ball, moving the ball quickly. Your best players have to make shots.”

Nneka Ogwumike scored 12 points for the Sparks, Chelsea Gray added 11, and Brittany Sykes and Te’a Cooper each had 10.

A distressed Meesseman said the Mystics’ defense needs to communicate better, play more aggressively and pay more attention to the scouting report on their opponents.

Atkins hit a jumper to cut the deficit to single digits midway through the third quarter, but that was as close as Washington would get as the Sparks immediately responded with a 9-0 run, aided by a pair of turnovers. The Mystics finished with 21 turnovers to 12 for Los Angeles. The Sparks scored 22 points off turnovers.

“L. A.’s aggressiveness was good. Our reaction to it was not so good,” Thibault said. “We threw a lot of passes right in their hands. Their front line of Candace [Parker] and Nneka and then their guards, particularly Sykes, they really got after us and jumped in passing lanes and we didn’t do a good job of responding. I would say it was a combination of sloppy and their aggression.”

Things don’t get any easier Saturday when Washington faces the second-place Las Vegas Aces. The Aces won the first meeting, 83-77.

Notes: The Mystics had just nine players available for Thursday’s game after they learned that Aerial Powers (hamstring) is going to be out “quite a while,” Thibault said. Powers has missed the past three games, and Thibault expects her to be out another 10 days to two weeks. “It’s not improving quickly,” Thibault said. …

The team was also without guard Kiara Leslie, who sprained both ankles in the previous two games and was in a walking boot Thursday. Thibault doesn’t expect to get her back until next week. …

With just eight healthy players available, Washington signed rookie free agent Stella Johnson earlier Thursday. The 5-foot-10 guard was drafted No. 29 overall by the Phoenix Mercury out of Rider University, where she left as the all-time leading scorer and the school’s first all-American. The Mercury waived Johnson and she signed with the Chicago Sky, playing four games before getting released.