Nneka Ogwumike's short jumper with 3.1 seconds left gave the Los Angeles Sparks a 77-76 victory over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx for their first title in 14 years in the deciding game of the WNBA Finals on Thursday night.
The league MVP joined her teammates in celebration as a stunned crowd slowly filed out after finishing with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Candace Parker had 28 points and 12 rebounds to earn MVP honors of the Finals. It was Parker's first WNBA title.
"She's been through so much," Ogwumike said of Parker. "She's probably the most misunderstood person in the league. I told her I wanted her to get one. She had an awesome game tonight. She's been our leader."
Parker said she listened to one of Pat Summitt's speeches before the game and that motivated her. Her former coach at Tennessee died in late June.
"She would have been proud of our rebounding. It came down to rebounding and defense," Parker said. "I could hear her voice telling me to keep going. She was definitely present tonight."
Rebekkah Brunson made one of two free throws with 23 seconds left to give the Lynx a 74-73 lead. Parker answered with a layup on the other end that Maya Moore countered with a jumper with 15 seconds remaining. Ogwumike's first try for the win was off the mark, but she worked her way over to the loose ball for another attempt that she coolly swished.
Lindsay Whalen's final shot from just inside halfcourt wasn't close, setting off Los Angeles' celebration as Parker and Sparks owner Magic Johnson embraced in a long hug.
Johnson spoke to the team after the loss at home in Game 4 on Sunday. His presence in Minnesota was all the more impressive considering the Dodgers, the other pro club he's invested in, were playing baseball in Los Angeles at the same time in Game 5 of their National League championship series.
"I told them the series wasn't over and that there was still a Game 5 to be played. They had to believe they could do it on a tough home court. This team Minnesota is tremendous," Johnson said. "We just beat the champions so I give them a lot of credit to. Our leaders led us and we had a great coach in Brian and they believed all season long. I told them this was their year. I wanted them to do it for Candace Parker. She deserves to be a champion. Great group of ladies."
Moore had 23 points and 11 assists for the Lynx, who fell short of matching the WNBA record of four championships. The Houston Comets won four straight titles from 1997-2000.
The Lynx played in the finals for the fifth time in the last six years. They won three.
Parker finally had help with the scoring when reserve Chelsea Gray reeled off 11 consecutive points for the Sparks. Gray capped that run with a smooth up-and-under layup to put them in front 60-59 early in the fourth quarter. Parker's putback with 3:06 left gave L.A. a 71-63 lead, putting the Lynx in trouble.
But Moore seized the moment with a 3-pointer that brought Minnesota within four points, and Parker forced an off-balance 3 on the other end.
Whalen stole the ball from Kristi Toliver and finished the fast break with a layup to tie the game at 71, setting up the final flurry.
On the next play, Ogwumike hit a jumper that appeared to come after the shot clock expired. The officials signaled for a review, but never looked at the basket and Los Angeles led 73-71 with just over a minute left.
The WNBA's new postseason format with the field ordered by overall record regardless of conference sure worked well, leading to this classic matchup between the two teams that fought all summer for the top seed and featuring several of the league's biggest stars.
The game was remarkably close, with 11 lead changes and six ties in the first half alone. Moore gave Minnesota its biggest lead of the first 20 minutes with a pair of free throws in the closing seconds of the second quarter to make it 34-28.
The Sparks had an opportunity for a surge when Sylvia Fowles exited with an injury to her right hand, scoring on a fast break while Fowles was wincing in pain by the bench and out of the play and then picking up a bonus point on a free throw for Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve's technical foul.
Augustus and Renee Montgomery knocked down 3-pointers from the top of the key down the stretch of the third quarter, though, and Fowles soon re-entered the game. She made her presence felt with a powerful take to the rim for a layup and a 53-47 lead.
Ogwumike joined Toliver and Essence Carson with three fouls in the first half and played less than 4 minutes in the second quarter.
If the finals return to Minnesota next year, the Lynx could have yet another place in which to try to pop the corks with a major renovation set for Target Center next summer. They'll play across the Mississippi River in St. Paul at Xcel Energy Center, the hockey home of the Minnesota Wild.
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