She didn’t allow herself to believe it was happening, not until the Target Center clock hit zero. After Nneka Ogwumike slid in a layup with 3.1 seconds left, giving Los Angeles a one-point lead over the Lynx, Sparks center Candace Parker watched as the Lynx’s Lindsay Whalen heaved the ball toward the basket.
“I didn’t breathe until the ball hit the backboard,” Parker said. “I was like, ‘There’s still a possibility that Lindsay Whalen will make this halfcourt shot, with our luck. Then I had the ball, and Kristi [Toliver] tackled me, and it was amazing.”
Even the Lynx, in their heartbreak over a 77-76 loss, agreed: It was an amazing Game 5. The Sparks won their first WNBA championship in 14 years on the strength of Parker’s 28 points, Ogwumike’s late heroics and a spirit-lifting talk from team owner Magic Johnson, who was among an announced crowd of 19,423 at Target Center. Most of them went away crestfallen, as the Lynx fell short in their bid for a fourth WNBA title and second in a row.
The Lynx led by six at halftime in a head-spinning game that featured 24 lead changes and 11 ties. Despite strong performances from their starters — particularly Maya Moore, who finished with 23 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and three steals — they faltered on defense in the second half, leaving an opening for the Sparks to win their third WNBA title.
With 2 minutes, 16 seconds left in the third quarter, the Lynx led 53-47. The Sparks clawed back behind Parker and Ogwumike to take a 71-63 lead with 3:06 left before the Lynx tied it at 71-71 on a stunning 8-0 run.
Los Angeles went back ahead 73-71 on a shot by Ogwumike with 1:12 to play that appeared to be taken after the shot clock had expired. The officials had the option to stop the game to review the play, but chose not to do so.
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The lead changed hands four times in the final 23.4 seconds before Ogwumike got the rebound of her own shot and scored.
Parker, twice the league MVP, had waited nine years to win her first championship. Thursday, she was named the most valuable player of the Finals, wearing a champagne-soaked T-shirt while the Lynx sat silently in their locker room.
“It’s a heartbreaking way to lose,” Moore said. “To be able to come back those last couple minutes to regain the lead, and we just weren’t able to secure the rebound and get a stop. The team that won this game deserved to win the game. It’s just hard to have it come that close.”
The Lynx were trying to tie Houston’s WNBA record of four league titles. They also were trying to become the first team since Los Angeles in 2001-02 to win two in a row.
After falling behind 2-1 in the best-of-five series, they scratched out a victory in Game 4 in Los Angeles to send a thrilling Finals back to Target Center. After that loss, Johnson — who won five NBA championships with the Lakers — gave the Sparks a talk that got them believing they could win Game 5 on the road.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve lamented her team’s inability to hold a lead and stop the Sparks’ inside game in the second half. The Lynx led 18-17 after the first quarter and stretched the margin to 34-28 at halftime after Ogwumike got into foul trouble. The league MVP was called for her third foul with 6:16 left in the half and sat out the rest of it.
But Parker broke loose in the second half, scoring 18 points as the Sparks outdueled the Lynx 44-30 in the paint. Moore and Seimone Augustus kept the Lynx afloat for a long stretch bridging the second and third quarters, combining for all 22 of their team’s points as the teams battled for the lead. The Lynx saw a six-point lead evaporate early in the third quarter and lost another six-point advantage at its end.
“In the second half, they scored at will in the paint,” Reeve said. “We had them at 34 [percent shooting] in the first half, and in the second, we didn’t get that done.
“In the end, there was a stretch where we struggled offensively. They got separation. We stormed back and put ourselves in position to win, and we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Sparks, who were outrebounded by the Lynx in three of the series’ first four games, had a 33-27 edge on the boards in Game 5 — including 14 offensive rebounds. They scored 15 second-chance points to five for the Lynx and got the biggest at the end, when Ogwumike scored the winner on a third-chance shot.
“We just had to keep believing and play as hard as possible,” Moore said. “That was the mind-set. Everybody made big plays and just kept trying to will us into position to try to win the game.”