LOS ANGELES – The Lynx got their biggest win of the season Tuesday night, beating the Los Angeles Sparks 77-74 at Staples Center to break the deadlock between them atop the WNBA.
Both teams went into the game with 24-5 records and on three-game winning streaks. Now the Lynx are one game ahead of the Sparks with only four games left and have clinched a spot in the league semifinals. The Lynx also won the season series with Los Angeles, two games to one, meaning they have the tiebreaker for the top seed — and the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs — if the two teams finish with the same regular-season record.
So, in effect for seeding purposes, it’s like a two-game lead for the Lynx.
Sylvia Fowles led the Lynx with 21 points, making nine of 11 shots, and added nine rebounds while Maya Moore had 20 points, scoring 12 of those in the fourth quarter. Rebekkah Brunson had only six points — she took only five shots — but had a game-high 11 rebounds.
Lindsay Whalen was also in double figures for the Lynx with 10 points.
“[The Sparks] are a great team, and they have proven they are a great team all year long,” Moore said. “So it means a lot to beat a team like that on the road twice.”
Los Angeles is 12-2 at home. Its other loss at Staples Center also was to Minnesota, 72-69 on June 21.
“I don’t think either team played as well as we could have though,” Moore said. “We just had to gut it out and make a few more plays and good decisions. They were resilient at the end of the game, but we hung on and hit our free throws and came out the winner.”
Moore made a fast-break layup for a 68-58 lead with 3:53 left.
Minnesota was up by 12 with 1:47 left but Los Angeles charged back and Chelsea Gray hit a three-pointer from the left corner with 2.1 seconds left to pull the Sparks to 76-74. With a second left Whalen was intentionally fouled. She made her first free throw and intentionally missed the second to run out the clock.
Gray, a reserve, led the Sparks with a career-high 20 points. Teammate Nneka Ogwumike added 19 points and Kristi Toliver 11.
Candace Parker, the Sparks’ second-leading scorer, had just 10 points. She was 3-for-11 shooting.
“We fought and we wanted it,” Gray said. “The team played hard. Some things didn’t go out way. We have to get stops down the stretch, but our fight was there. If it wasn’t then we would have much bigger problems.”
The Lynx led 42-37 at halftime behind Fowles’ 11 points. She was 4-for-5 from the field and three of four on free throws. Ogwumike had 11 points.
The Sparks didn’t make their first basket of the third quarter until the 3:21 mark but only trailed 54-50 entering the fourth after closing on a 10-4 run, capped by Toliver’s three-pointer with 34.5 seconds left. Toliver’s driving layup cut the Lynx lead to 56-54 just 2:22 into the fourth.
Fowles answered with a layup and Moore hit a three to make it 61-54. Moore was 3-for-7 behind the arc.
“Just trying to keep my poise,” Fowles said of her approach to such a big game. “The Sparks have a really good defense, so I just need to pick my spots. It can’t be the first quarter or the first half, you have to keep going throughout the game and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Fowles and Moore combined to score Minnesota’s first 18 points of 23 in the fourth quarter.
The Lynx shot 49.2 percent from the field, the Sparks 41 percent. Minnesota outrebounded Los Angeles 35-28.
This is the Lynx’s fifth 25-win season in the past six years. Only Los Angeles has reached that milestone as many times; next are Connecticut and the old Houston Comets with three 25-win seasons.