With her team’s options dwindling, the score tied and the seconds ticking away, Candace Parker grew impatient. The Lynx had prevented Los Angeles from running the play it wanted on the final possession of Sunday’s Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, leaving Sparks guard Chelsea Gray with the ball in her hands and one last choice.
“I was screaming, ‘Shoot it! Shoot it!’ because I saw the time winding down,” said Parker, the Sparks center. “She drove and kicked, and [Alana Beard] hit the shot. I was right underneath the rim, and I’m like, that’s good.”
Beard nailed a 21-foot jump shot from the corner near her team’s bench, delivering the winner at the buzzer for a 78-76 victory over the Lynx at Target Center. In a back-and-forth game between the WNBA’s most dominant teams this season, the Lynx were undone by turnovers and defensive miscues, sending them to only their fourth loss in 27 home playoff games.
The Sparks got 19 points each from Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver as they took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Los Angeles scored 18 points off 16 Lynx turnovers and held Maya Moore scoreless in the first half. Moore, who entered the Finals averaging 25.7 points in the playoffs, scored 18 in the second half but missed a free throw and turned the ball over in the final 2 minutes, 41 seconds as the Lynx tried to rally.
The Lynx led 69-65 with 5:26 left. A 9-2 run gave Los Angeles the lead until Moore tied the score at 76-76 with 24.7 seconds left, setting up Beard’s dagger of a shot.
“[The Sparks] handled adversity well, and we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We thought we had some good stretches. But we made some bad plays that cost us.”
Beard’s buzzer-beater stunned a crowd accustomed to seeing the Lynx work their way out of trouble. They were in it frequently in Game 1, with Moore neutralized in the first half and Seimone Augustus scoring her first points with 2:07 left in the second quarter.
Lindsay Whalen held the Lynx together on offense, scoring 12 in the first half. But the defense often leaked, allowing the Sparks easy baskets inside and leaving outside shooters uncovered. The Lynx also committed frequent fouls, and the Sparks made 19 of 24 free throws.
Still, the Lynx turned a five-point deficit in the first quarter into a 36-34 halftime lead. They extended that to 60-56 at the end of the third quarter, as Moore began to find her shooting touch.
The Lynx offense, though, could not sustain its usual speed and rhythm. Turnovers and misses doomed them near the game’s end, with Beard playing a part in that as well. She made two big plays to protect Los Angeles’ lead, stealing the ball from Moore and blocking a Whalen shot in the final three minutes.
“We had a few possessions before that when we put together a string of stops,” Beard said. “That was an important stint. Defense definitely won this game for us.”
Not entirely, however. Reeve said she knew exactly what play the Sparks wanted to run on the final possession, and the Lynx’s emphasis on stopping an easy drive to the basket left Beard open in the corner. Gray moved toward the hoop, the defense collapsed on her, and she found her teammate for a basket that Beard said was the first game-winner of her 12-year WNBA career.
As her teammates mobbed her, a crowd announced at 12,113 marched out of Target Center in disbelief. The Lynx were stunned, too, but they can’t dwell on it with Game 2 on Tuesday back on their home court.
“That was certainly a good play by them,” Reeve said. “We got caught over-helping, and she made a big shot.
“It doesn’t feel very good. It will hurt for a little bit, and then, you’ve just got to pick yourself up and move on.”