Minneapolis, MN — The Los Angeles Sparks have earned their first WNBA Championship title since 2002 to close the WNBA’s 20th season. It’s been nothing short of a historic season for both teams, and the league itself.
And with three WNBA MVPs, the Defensive Player of the Year, the Sixth Woman of the Year, the Coach of the Year, and four Olympians battling on the court, tonight’s decisive Game 5 at the packed Target Center in Minneapolis was the perfect way to finish it off.
“I think I'm excited because we won a championship,” Parker said. “But the journey to get here, I wouldn't have wanted to do it with anybody else, with any other team, any other coaches. It's amazing when you surround yourself with great people how fun it is and how exciting it is when you get what you want.”
As he played “Rocky Top” on his cell phone after the game, Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler said, “I had to do that, and it's nothing other than I've never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I've not ever been around anybody that I'm more happy for than Candace tonight, for what she's gone through this season.
“It's been unbelievable. She stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it, was persistent, and sort of like -- she went through sort of like what our team went through, the ups and downs. We're really happy with how we played tonight, showed a lot of resiliency and perseverance and made plays down the stretch.”
The first quarter was a tightly contested battle between the two teams who’ve been neck-and-neck all season. Sparks forward Essence Carson set the pace of the game quickly, sinking an open jumper in the first 10 seconds of play.
Four minutes in, Lynx forward Maya Moore put up her first two points, en route to leading Minnesota with six points, two rebounds, and four assists. With four minutes left, Los Angeles forward Candace Parker hit the first three of the game and her first in the finals (previously 0-for-6, and 1-11 playoffs).
Parker led all scorers with seven points, four rebounds, and one assist, contributing to the Sparks 38.9 percent efficiency from the field. The Lynx shot 41 percent and held an 18-17 lead after the first 10 minutes of play.
“I think in years past maybe I was doing a lot, and maybe I could have used a little help, but this year it was on me,” Parker said. “My teammates were doing their part; I had to step up and do mine.
“You can't control if shots go in or if shots don't, but what you can control is defense and rebounding, and that was kind of my mindset tonight, that I had to keep Sylvia off the boards and I had to do that not just for myself but for my team, as well.”
To light up the second, Nneka Ogwumike – named the 2016 WNBA Most Valuable Player – hit a jumper to put the Sparks back up by one, before she was forced to the bench for the remainder of the half after picking up her third personal foul.
Halfway through the quarter, Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver sunk the Sparks second three-pointer, while Minnesota still hadn’t connected from beyond the arc (0-for-2). But Moore continued to get things done on both sides of the court, leading all scorers with 12 points, five rebounds, and five assists.
The Lynx finished shooting at a 46.7 efficiency, and their defense was on point as they racked up 8 defensive rebounds, forced 4 turnovers, and grabbed 3 steals. With 3:32 left to play in the first half, the game had already seen 11 lead changes, where neither team had led by more than four. However, Minnesota ended the half on a 6-0 run to take a 34-28 lead into the locker room. Parker finished the half with 10 points, six rebounds, and one assist.
“Maya Moore is just -- she's an incredible player,” Agler said. “And not to slight anybody else on their team because they've got a bunch of really good players, great players, Olympians, but she's special. She's as good as there is, and probably will stay at that level and make everybody raise to her level as time goes on.”
Parker came out of the gates hot and ready to cut the lead, sinking a three-pointer to open the second half. After Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and 2015 WNBA Finals MVP, appeared to suffer a hand injury, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve received a technical foul, as she seemed to attempt to get Fowles out of the game.
A dangerous and active Parker, and a 7-0 Los Angeles run allowed the Sparks to retake a one-point lead four minutes into the third quarter. However, midway through, the game was tied for the ninth time, after 14 lead changes in the game thus far.
Parker led all scorers with 20 points, nine rebounds, and one assist, but it wasn’t enough for the Sparks to stay on top, as the Lynx took a 55-54 lead heading into the final 10 minutes of play.
“There's no question the second half they scored at will in the paint,” Reeve said. “We had them at 34 percent in the first half. I thought defending our tails off, and then in the second half we didn't get that done. They scored in the paint at will.”
Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, who came off the bench for 20 points in Game 4, nailed a turnaround jumper to start the final, championship-determining quarter. An offensive putback by Ogwumike three minutes in gave Los Angeles its biggest lead of the game, as they went up 62-59.
Parker then recorded a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Toliver hit a shot clock buzzer beater to put the Sparks up by 6 with 3:35 to play. Parker followed with another layup, which increased their lead to 8, and forced Minnesota to take a timeout.
Moore hadn’t scored the entire fourth quarter until she sunk a free throw followed by a three-pointer with less than three minutes to play. A field goal by Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson locked in a 6-0 run for the Lynx, forcing Los Angeles to take a timeout of their own.
Whalen stole the inbound and drove in for a layup, tying the game for the 21st time of the game. The two teams continued to go back and forth, up and down the court, tied up 73-73 until Brunson went to the line and sunk a free throw. The final 30 seconds were an accurate representation of the entire game, with some back-and-forth, title-seeking, hard-played basketball.
Parker drove in a layup to take a 75-74 lead with 19.7 seconds to play. Moore, who finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 11 assists, responded with a jumper to retake the lead 76-75.
However, Ogwumike battled her way to what would be the game-winning layup with 3.1 seconds remaining, and the Los Angeles Sparks earned the 2016 WNBA Championship title with a 77-76 victory. Parker led all scorers with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 1 assist, followed by Ogwumike with 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 1 assist.
“We got the ball, came down, and Nneka, I saw when she let it go, it was good, and so then I was like, okay, they have three seconds left, no timeouts, and then it's like -- I can't breathe until the ball hit the backboard,” Parker said.
“I still was like; there's a possibility Lindsay could make this half-court shot with our luck. So I was just like until the last moment when there was zero on the clock, and I had the ball, that's when Kristi just tackled me, and it was amazing.”
Congratulations to the Los Angeles Sparks. What a game. What a season.
“This one’s for Pat [Summitt],” Parker said immediately following the win.