LOS ANGELES – Long before the frantic final minutes, Maya Moore knew what she was going to see in Sunday’s Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. As the Lynx forward always does, she looked into the eyes of her teammates in the first quarter — and saw a group ready to scrap to the end against Los Angeles.
“I knew we were going to fight,’’ Moore said. “If we were going down, we were going down fighting.’’
Two days after taking a staggering punch from the Sparks, the Lynx answered with a big blow of their own to send the series to a deciding Game 5. They outlasted Los Angeles 85-79 in a bruising, raw and nerve-fraying game at Staples Center, tying the best-of-five series 2-2.
The Lynx reversed form completely from their lackluster Game 3, giving themselves a chance to play for a second consecutive WNBA title Thursday at Target Center. Moore provided many of the theatrics in a marvelous all-around performance, with 31 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals. She scored 18 in the second half and helped the Lynx repel three late rallies by the Sparks.
But it was the Lynx’s teamwork, Moore said, that carried the day. Their collective defense held Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike to 11 points, including only four in the second half, and they outrebounded the Sparks 41-25. Lindsay Whalen contributed 13 points and six rebounds, Sylvia Fowles snared 13 rebounds and Rebekkah Brunson hit two free throws with 12.5 seconds left after she stole the ball from Candace Parker and drew a foul.
The Lynx responded exactly as Moore hoped they would after a 17-point drubbing in Game 3. Before Sunday’s game, the WNBA championship trophy was displayed at center court, polished and ready for presentation. Moore and her teammates ensured that will not happen until Thursday in Minneapolis.
“This is what a Finals game should look like,’’ Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Both teams left it all out on the floor.
“We needed every bit of what Maya did. It wasn’t easy. I thought she was more persistent in finding opportunities to score. Obviously, it was huge.’’
Before the game, Reeve said her players were focused, determined and still a little angry over the first-quarter flop in Game 3. The Sparks’ 32 points were the most any team has scored against the Lynx in a quarter in the postseason, and it gave the Sparks the start they needed in a matchup that has hinged on early success. The team that has led after the first quarter had won all six games the Lynx and Sparks played this year.
Moore predicted the start of Game 4 would be “so intense,’’ with so much on the line. She urged her team to remember its identity as a defense-first group, knowing it would be the key to extending the series.
In front of a loud, high-energy crowd announced at 12,885 that included Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Cedric The Entertainer, the Lynx won with poise, composure and grit. They trailed by as many as five points in the first quarter, then pulled ahead in the second, on a pair of Moore layups, en route to a 46-40 halftime lead.
Their lead grew to 10 points in the third quarter, but the Sparks used a 14-5 run capped with three-pointers by Chelsea Gray and Kristi Toliver to cut their deficit to 57-56 with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
That set the stage for a wild fourth quarter, as the Sparks kept creeping close, only to be turned back by the persistent Lynx.
Moore scored the Lynx’s final eight points of the third quarter to stretch the lead to six. The Sparks cut it to 65-63, then tied it at 69 on a Parker drive. Whalen converted two Sparks turnovers into baskets to restore the Lynx lead to 73-69, before a three-pointer by Gray again cut it to two points with 2:08 left.
After Brunson’s free throws, Moore made four free throws to seal the victory.
“We put ourselves in a good position,’’ said Toliver, who finished with 15 points. “We just have to play with a little bit more poise down the stretch. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this experience.’’