Los Angeles, CA — For the first time in 14 years, the Staples Center would play host to a WNBA Finals game.
The Los Angeles Sparks made sure to give their fans their money’s worth.
Led by a combined 45 points from their leading women, Candace Parker and the recently crowned MVP Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks held the lead from the first basket and never looked back, beating the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx 92-75 and taking a commanding 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series Friday night.
Ogwumike stressed the importance of staying ahead and keeping the lead against such a dangerous team in the Lynx.
“It was pivotal for this series,” Ogwumike said. “It was also pivotal to sustain it. I think we did a really good job maintaining that aggression. Even through our troubled times tonight, we wanted to stay aggressive and maintain it.”
Both teams knew going into Friday’s game that whoever won would have the best chance of clinching the series on Sunday. However, it was Los Angeles who proved Friday that they are capable of flexing their offensive muscle when it mattered the most.
The first quarter of the game started off with Ogwumike scoring the first point of the game with a free throw a minute in. Within the next minute and a half, the Sparks went on a 7-0 run before Sylvia Fowles scored on a layup to notch the first points for the Lynx.
That layup served as the catalyst for Los Angeles, as they went on a tear that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Between the seven minute mark and the 1:30 mark, the Sparks went on a 21-7 run.
Ogwumike and Parker scored 21 of the 24, with Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray and Essence Carson joining in on the fun as well. Minnesota bounced back to bring the margin back within a respectable 15, but still left the court down 32-17.
The first quarter combined score topped the highest point total for a first quarter in WNBA Finals history.
Carson started things off for Los Angeles in the second quarter with a 24-foot three-pointer, and the Sparks went up by as much as 20 in the quarter. Minnesota, led by the efforts of Renee Montgomery, Rebekkah Brunson and their bench, fought hard, and by the end of the quarter put the Sparks on warning mode. At halftime, the defending champs were down by only eight points, 48-40.
Coming back, you would have thought that the 1980 ‘Showtime’ Los Angeles Lakers were on the floor (Sparks part-owner Earvin “Magic” Johnson was in attendance and celebrity star Snoop Dogg was in the building as well), because the Sparks’ offense went back into attack mode. Between Ogwumike, Parker and Game One hero Beard, they scored 14 of the team’s 22 points in the third, keeping the Lynx at bay. Going into the final frame, the home team was leading 70-58.
The Lynx, being winners of three of the last five championships, refused to lay down, and came into the fourth quarter determined to take the series lead. Fowles, the 2015 Finals MVP scored the first six points for Minnesota. Los Angeles, led by two Carson three-pointers, flushed out the run, putting the Sparks up 79-62 with 7:09 left.
Seimone Augustus, who only scored nine points (3-8 shooting) for Minnesota, gave a lot of credit to Los Angeles for taking advantage of the Lynx’ sloppiness.
“We had a few bad possessions, but they made some great plays,” Augustus said. “We saw Candace [Parker] make some great moves at the post. Essence [Carson] was hitting some key shots down the stretch. When we made our run, she hit a clutch three-pointer to send them a little further. People made plays down the stretch.”
Minnesota answered with a 9-2 run to put the Lynx within 10 (81-71) with 3:42 left, but that was the last big run they would be able to put together. An Ogwumike layup with 2:13 left put the Sparks up 16. Parker, who had the assist, pumped her fists in celebration on the other end of the court. Carson put the nail in the coffin with 0.1 seconds left, capping off the victory with a three-pointer.
Ogwumike scored 21 points; Parker scored a game-high 24 points along with nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal, and Carson finished the game with 16 for the home Sparks, who will also be hosting game four at the Staples Center.
Minnesota had an unusually quiet night from Maya Moore, who only scored nine points, but had seven assists and seven rebounds. Brunson and Fowles led the team with 14 points a piece, along with 11 from Lindsay Whalen.
For Whalen, being down 2-1 is not foreign to her or the Lynx. In 2012, the Lynx were down 2-1 to the Indiana Fever in an eventual loss. However, Whalen isn’t nervous about the deficit.
“With whatever happened in the past, we’re focused on what we can do now in this series in 2016,” Whalen said. “They beat us here tonight in Game 3. We have to get ready for Game 4.”
For the Sparks, Sunday night will be an opportunity for them to hoist their first championship trophy since 2002, when they won their second of back-to-back titles.
For Minnesota, if they plan to win their fourth title in six years, they’ll need a win in Los Angeles to take the series back to the Target Center in Minneapolis.