LOS ANGELES, CA — And then there was one. It was the clash of the titans, the battle for first, the fight to remain flawless. The undefeated Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx, met up at Staples Center for a historic matchup, and the Lynx came out on top.
Today's game marked the first time in history that two teams have met with each team having 10-or-more wins, no losses, and no ties. And that's not just in the WNBA -- this includes the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL.
Kristi Toliver opened the game for the Sparks with a dominating three-pointer, but the Minnesota Lynx quickly answered, proving that this was going to be no easy feat.
Maya Moore and company dominated the first quarter in every category. The Lynx outrebounded the Sparks, 16-7, with Moore alone grabbing six.
Minnesota's aggression and scrappiness stifled the precision focus that has epitomized Los Angeles' defense thus far. The Lynx found their sweet spot in the paint, grabbing 16 of their 25 first quarter points from inside. They earned eight points on second-chance shots, compared to the Sparks four.
"I think we were settling for jumpers earlier in the game, and I also think that we got to the lane a lot in the first half through penetration, but we got fouled," Sparks head coach Brian Agler said.
"Some of those could've been points in the paint that we ended up getting at the free throw line or getting free throw opportunities. They've got a strong presence down there with Sylvia, and we gotta try to bring ours out with Nneka," Agler commented.
Rebekkah Brunson led the Lynx with six points, followed by Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Natasha Howard, all with four.
Toliver and Nneka Ogwumike were the top scorers for Los Angeles with six and five points, respectively. Minnesota ended the quarter ahead, 25-21.
Both teams' powerhouses found themselves in early foul trouble. Ogwumike and Moore checked out midway through the second quarter. The latter proved to make the difference. In Moore's absence, Los Angeles regained its lead for the first time since Toliver's game opener with Alana Beard's jumper, albeit by one point.
Brunson then picked up a pair from the line to bring the Lynx ahead again, but Essence Carson's steal-and-score at the buzzer brought the Sparks on top to end the half, 39-38.
Los Angeles regained some of its defensive composure in the second quarter, holding the league's top scoring Lynx (averaging 87.8 points per game) to just 13 points.
"When we got down by seven, we didn't panic," Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said. "We dug in and got key stops."
Moore opened the half with a jumper to remind the Sparks of her presence, which was not long lived. She checked out again after another foul for most of the third quarter, during which the Sparks were able to gain some traction.
Los Angeles pulled ahead by seven points, its largest lead of the game, led by Toliver and Beard. Once Moore returned, the Lynx came back to tie the game at the end of the third quarter, 56-all.
"Maya has intangibles, like her leadership. She has a winner's mentality. She never quits on a play, whether she's making shots or whether she's doing the wrong things. She's a player that has the ability to have short term memory on the court, and she always believes that she will make the next play, and that's what makes her special," Reeve said.
Minnesota continued to score in the paint and on second-chance opportunities, outscoring the Sparks 36-26 and 20-8, respectively.
"We just had to grind it out. Every night is not going to be your night shooting-wise, so you got to grind it out and get it on defense," Montgomery said. "We had second chance points on the glass, and sometimes that just how you have to win the games."
Los Angeles can attribute its loss to its lack of rebounding. The Lynx outrebounded the Sparks by 13. This was especially made clear in the last nail-biting minutes of the game.
Toliver brought the offensive heat in the fourth quarter. Her three-pointer brought the Sparks ahead by two points with less than two minutes remaining. With less than one minute left, the Sparks gave up yet another offensive rebound, which eventually turned into a bucket by Fowles to tie the game.
Beard missed a shot with seven seconds left, which, again, was grabbed by Minnesota.
Augustus inbounded the ball to Lindsay Whalen, who turned the corner driving baseline. It looked like she had a wide-open reverse layup, however, she kept going. As she was driving, Renee Montgomery relocated to the corner behind the arc, where she took the pass from Whalen, knocking down a clutch three-pointer to take the lead with three seconds left.
"Whalen was coming off, and she could've shot a layup, which shows a lot of confidence in me, and I appreciate that. That play was exactly designed like that; it wasn't an accident," Montgomery said. "Sylvia set me an incredible back screen, and when I was open, I thank God it went in, because I was having a tough shooting night."
Candace Parker then went to the line, where she missed her first, but then rebounded her intentionally missed second shot. She then quickly passed it to Toliver on the wing but, unfortunately, her made shot was called off, as she failed to release before the buzzer.
"We knew we had to get the three. [Candace and I] made eye contact, and we both kind of nudged to the left, and knew that it was going to be the spot, and it worked out perfectly," Toliver said. "Unfortunately, my big toe was on the line, but I'm happy with the fight we put up today."
The Los Angeles Sparks perfect record comes to an end, and the Lynx advance their historic record to 13-0.
"Who we are works. We need to just continue to be more determined to be that than the other team's identity," Moore said. "We're confident in who we are when we're at our best, and even when things don't go well, we come together and figure out a way to win."
The defensive intensity was felt from both teams. Ogwumike, shooting 80% over her last four games, was held to nine points, and Moore, averaging 19.7 points per game, was held to eight points.
"Both teams were kept in check. It was the game that everybody was hoping it would be," Reeve said. "We couldn't get separation, and that's what you expect when both teams are one and two in nearly every category on offense and defense."
The best part about this match up? It happens again Friday, but this time on the Lynx' home court. The Sparks head to Minneapolis to avenge their loss with hopes of delivering an etch in the Lynx loss category.
"I'm looking forward to playing them at their place because I know we can play so much better," Toliver said. "It was a really great, competitive game against, in my opinion, the two best teams in the league. They brought out the best in us, and we brought out the best in them, and I'm looking forward to the next one. We couldn't be more excited and more ready to get a win at their place."