LOS ANGELES — With 8.1 seconds left, Riquna Williams broke free. Williams stole the ball from Alexis Jones while drawing a foul, and dragging her team to postseason survival.
Despite a disappointing regular season, despite their two star players, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, battling ailments and injuries, the Los Angeles Sparks overcame the defending champion Minnesota Lynx 75-68 in the first round of the WNBA playoffs Tuesday night. L.A. will play another single-elimination game Thursday at Washington.
The matchup that for three straight years was the culmination of the Sparks’ season is only the beginning of their playoff quest. They lost to the Lynx in the conference semifinals in 2015, defeated them in the Finals in 2016, then lost the championship to them last season.
This time the winner would be decided in one game. The first time both teams experienced single elimination. That meant no margin for error. The Sparks had to be flawless.
The Sparks started sloppy, allowing the Lynx to take an 11-point lead. Ogwumike is recovering from mononucleosis, but she led her team as it made a 19-5 run that ended with the Sparks on top 40-37 at halftime.
They started the second half just as unrelenting, with a stream of thunderous threes by Williams to bury the Lynx. Williams scored all 17 of her points in the second half.
As the Sparks built their lead, the rivalry turned physical. Chelsea Gray and Tanisha Wright exchanged shoves. Odyssey Sims was knocked to the floor on an offensive foul.
Maybe it was Minnesota’s playmaking. Maybe, as coach Brian Agler suspected, the Sparks grew careless with the comfortable lead, but the Lynx narrowed the deficit, trailing by three with 3 1/2 minutes to play. But the Sparks held on, taking a five-point lead with a jumper from Gray with 96 seconds left.
That was the magic number Agler cited before the game — the 90-second mark. The Sparks struggled in the regular season, partly from their failure to finish close games. Five of the Sparks’ 15 losses were decided by three or fewer points — 10 by fewer than 10 points.
But instead of faltering, the Sparks stepped up.
They strung together slow drives that ate up the clock, allowed the Lynx a three-pointer, but forced an airball on their next possession. From there, the Sparks tacked on a few baskets to keep the Minnesota comeback just out of reach and sealed it with Williams’ steal.
Cue the dancing, the hugs for Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen, who ended her WNBA career, the celebration for a win so overwhelming it brought Gray to tears in her on-court interview.
Gray finished with a game-high 26 points. Ogwumike added 19.
“We got stops when we needed stops, executed when we needed to execute,” Ogwumike said. “Now we have to take that on the road, all the way back to the East Coast.”
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