Professional Basketball

Sparks Fend Off Lynx to Take WNBA Finals First Game

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MINNEAPOLIS – The Los Angeles Sparks picked up where they left off after last year’s WNBA Finals, which ended in the final possessions of the decisive Game 5, when they hung on against a hard charging Minnesota Lynx team in Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, known locally as “The Barn,” on Sunday afternoon. The 11,923 in attendance were treated to a game that is sure to be a classic when the Sparks held off the Lynx 85-84 with four lead changes in the final minute of play.

But it shouldn’t have been close.

Minnesota Lynx guard Seimone Augustus shoots a three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

The Sparks dominated the game’s opening while the Lynx couldn’t find their groove. Minnesota was so awful in the first quarter that if “The Barn” had a broadside, they wouldn’t have been able to hit it through the first eight minutes of play as Los Angeles built up a 28-2 early lead.

“They got the upper hand in those first five minutes obviously, and then what happens there, you lose your focus and then defensively, we were terrible. So the combination was really, really bad. We kind of lost trust in what we were trying to get done,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “[It was] execution. It’s never effort with this team. I don’t have to ask them to play hard. We play hard, and execution was definitely the problem.”

Lynx forward Maya Moore knows they dug themselves a deep hole to climb out of.

“That wasn’t by any means anything we wanted in that first quarter. Just a combination of not scoring the ball and they were hot. You know, it’s such a crucial point in the series, and we definitely dug ourselves a hole,” said Moore.

When the first quarter ended, the Sparks held a 32-11 lead by shooting 60 percent from the field on 12-for-20 shooting and four three pointers, including dishing nine assists during that span, while the Lynx were held to 26.5 percent shooting going 4-for-15 from the field.

When asked about his team’s hot start, Sparks head coach Brian Agler said, “I thought we defended them well. They didn’t hit shots. That was a big part of it. I know that sounds simple and elementary, that’s pretty much what it was. They had a couple turnovers and we got out on transition.”

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore attempts to save a ball from going out of bounds, while official Jeff Wooten signals the turnover during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Minnesota regained their composure and began chipping away the deficit in the second quarter. With nine points from forward Maya Moore and eight from center Sylvia Fowles, the 26 point deficit from the first quarter was trimmed to 10 by halftime as the Sparks led 43-33 at the intermission. Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen nailed a half-court jumper as time expired which could have cut the deficit to seven, but the officials overturned the basket after review.

“Hats off to Minnesota, how they battled back. I know they are not real happy with how they started the game but it showed a lot of character how they put themselves back in the game, and in position to win,” said Agler.

But the Sparks weren’t about to let this slip away if they could help it. Both teams went on small runs during the third quarter. Minnesota cut the deficit to five, before Los Angeles extended it back to a dozen. At the end of the third quarter, the Sparks led 68-56. With ten minutes left in regulation, it appeared that the lead would hold.

Guard Chelsea Gray hit a 16-foot pull up jumper with 5:32 remaining in the fourth quarter and was fouled by Lynx guard Jia Perkins on the play. After Gray’s free throw, the lead was back up to 12 with the score 78-66.

Then the Lynx made their run.

Minnesota went on a 12-0 run on two layups by center Sylvia Fowles, a layup by guard Seimone Augustus, two layups and a jump shot by forward Maya Moore. With 2:10 left in regulation, Moore’s driving layup tied the game at 78-78, erasing a 26-point deficit from the first quarter.

Then with 49.8 seconds remaining, Augustus hit a 23-foot jump shot to give the home team their first lead of the game at 82-81. It was short lived as Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike answered with a five-foot hook shot with 26.2 seconds left to put the Sparks back up by one.

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore goes in for a driving layup during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Moore missed a two-foot layup, and then Lynx guard Jia Perkins fouled Sparks forward Essence Carson, who missed two free throws which could have made it a two possession game with 13.7 seconds left.

Perkins grabbed the rebound on Carson’s second miss, made an outlet pass to guard Lindsay Whalen, who fed Moore for an easy layup to give the Lynx an 84-83 advantage with a mere 6.5 seconds remaining.

“I couldn’t believe it didn’t go in,” said Moore regarding her missed layup. “You have to bounce back and move on to the next play. I just snapped back and got locked into the next moment and we were able to get a defensive rebound push and another layup.”

At this point, the Lynx just needed to play tough defense and they could have set the WNBA record for the largest come-from-behind victory in WNBA playoff history.

Instead, the Sparks locked down for one more offensive sequence.

Gray received the Los Angeles inbound pass from center Candace Parker after the 20 second time out, drove towards the paint and then settled for a 16-foot fade away jumper over the outstretched arms of Moore and Augustus to give the Sparks the 85-84 advantage with just 2.0 seconds left.

Moore traveled on the inbounds pass, sealing the victory for the visiting Sparks.

“I was like, ‘They still have time on the clock.’ The shot didn’t count when Lindsay [Whalen] hit the halfcourt shot before, but I mean, they are capable of doing that. We were just like, ‘Get a stop, get a stop,” said Gray when asked about her final shot. “Adrenaline was just running through me. I’m just happy we got the win and they didn’t make a halfcourt shot.”

Los Angeles Sparks guard Odyssey Sims fights through a double-team by Minnesota Lynx forwards Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

“I think all athletes dream of that moment, you know, especially at this magnitude and at this stage, I think you dream of hitting that shot. Last year it was Alana [Beard] and Nneka [Ogwumike]. I’m glad it went in. I think we drew up a good play, and my teammates had confidence in me once I got the ball and I knocked it down,” said Gray.

Two players each had 27 points on the night, Gray and Moore. Minnesota’s Fowles was the only other player over 20 points, she had 22 points. Fowles also led all rebounders with 13 boards, while Parker led the Sparks by pulling down a dozen.

Despite the poor first quarter shooting, Minnesota finished 35-for-70, an even 50 percent, while the Sparks shooting tapered off to 47.8 percent on 33-for-69 shooting.

The Sparks jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series, which will resume play at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT.

“Just being aware of what’s going on and knowing that this is the playoffs, and how we started out was unacceptable,” said Fowles regarding her team’s slow start. “Just being focused and staying poised is what was the difference.”

The Lynx have found themselves in this position before. This is their sixth WNBA Finals series in the past seven seasons and they have lost the first game of the series on three different occasions prior to Sunday. Against the Indiana Fever in 2012, they lost the first game by a score of 76-70 and lost the series in four games. In 2015, also against the Fever, they lost 75-69 but won the series in five games. Last season, the Sparks took Game 1 by a score of 78-76 and lost the series in the final possessions of the decisive Game 5. If this game is any indication of how the series will wind up, this series may be one for the ages.

 

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