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Most-improved award winner Kristi Toliver sends Sparks past Stars

LOS ANGELES -- Kristi Toliver is one of the WNBA's best players. She also knows how to keep a secret.

Toliver tied her career high with 29 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 45 seconds remaining, and the Los Angeles Sparks beat the San Antonio Silver Stars 93-86 in the opening game of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night.

Toliver accepted the league's Most Improved Player award before the game -- a presentation that surprised teammate Candace Parker.

"I want to put out there how upset I am that Kristi didn't tell me and I found out with the crowd," Parker quipped before adding, "It was a no-brainer. She put herself this season as one of the top players in the league."

Toliver defended herself, saying: "I found out in a call from the team president. She said, 'You can only tell your mommy and your daddy.' I follow directions."

"I want to be a great player and I know what it takes," she said. "I'm happy I'm on my way to becoming one of the top players in the league."

Parker, runner-up for the league's MVP award, added 25 points and Alana Beard had 18 for the second-seeded Sparks, who improved to 17-1 at home this season. The game was played at Galen Center, the University of Southern California's home arena, because of a scheduling conflict at Staples Center.

Becky Hammons led the third-seeded Silver Stars with 19 points. Danielle Adams had 17, and Danielle Robinson finished with 16.

Game 2 is Saturday in San Antonio at Freeman Coliseum. The Silver Stars are being forced out of AT&T Center by a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.

San Antonio won three of the teams' four regular-season meetings, with the Sparks winning the last one 101-77.

"We know we can beat this team," Adams said. "Our motivation is high. Our drive is high. The next two games are going to be very good."

The Sparks were helped by a 32-11 edge at the free throw line. Toliver made all 10 of her attempts, while Parker hit seven of eight.

"It was kind of foul central at the end," Hammons said. "When you look at the free throw line, that's the game. We gave that one away. That's definitely a missed opportunity for us."

The Sparks dominated the final quarter after trailing through the first three periods. Jenna O'Hea's basket gave them the lead early in the fourth as part of an 11-0 run that put the Sparks ahead 78-69.

The Silver Stars answered with a 9-2 run to tie it at 80.

From there, the Sparks closed on a 13-6 run, including 10 consecutive free throws. Toliver made two, Parker hit six in a row and O'Hea had two to end the game.

"I've got to look at the tape and see why we fouled so much," San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said. "We fouled least in the WNBA this season.

"It's the first game I've ever coached Becky and Sophia (Young) where they didn't shoot a free throw."

The Silver Stars led by 10 points late in the third before the Sparks rallied to cut their deficit to 67-65 going into the fourth.

"We got a little undisciplined defensively," Hammons said. "They hit some tough shots. We didn't get to the free throw line much. We just didn't get awarded for the aggressiveness."

Parker sat out for a stretch in the third, and it wasn't to catch her breath.

"Coach was upset with me for my lack of rebounding, and she should have been," she said. "I just wasn't boxing out."

The Silver Stars led 44-40 at the break behind 13 points by Adams, who helped them dominate the paint 26-14 in the half. Neither team led by more than five points, with the lead changing hands 15 times in the early going.

"We need to come out with more aggression and energy," Parker said. "We were kind of dead the first couple of quarters."

Clippers teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, along with Olympic 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, sat courtside for the Sparks' first playoff game since 2010. Former Sparks coach Michael Cooper was with his current USC women's players.