MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Candace Parker and the Sparks jumped with joy on the court, joined in celebration by a guy named Magic Johnson who once made basketball championships a habit in Los Angeles.
Parker’s old college coach, the late Pat Summitt, was there in spirit too.
Nneka Ogwumike’s short jumper with 3.1 seconds left, off the rebound of her blocked shot, gave the Sparks a 77-76 victory over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the deciding Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Thursday night for the franchise’s first title in 14 years.
Parker had 28 points and 12 rebounds to earn MVP honors of the Finals and her first WNBA title, capping a trying year marked by the death of the beloved Summitt, with whom she won two NCAA championships at Tennessee. Parker also was left off the U.S. Olympic team after helping them to a gold medal in the previous two Games.
“The journey to get here I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anybody else,” Parker said. “It’s amazing when you surround yourself with good people how fun it is.”
Sparks coach Brian Agler started his postgame news conference by playing a recording of the Tennessee fight song, “Rocky Top,” from a phone in front of him at the podium. Parker cried as she leaned over to hug her coach.
“I’ve never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard,” Agler said, “and I’ve never been around anyone I’m happy for than Candace.”
Said Ogwumike: “She’s been through so much. She’s probably the most misunderstood person in the league. I told her I wanted her to get one.”
Parker heard Summitt’s voice in her head, recalling the time-worn advice to focus on defense and rebounding.
“You can’t control if shots go in or shots don’t, but what you can control is defense and rebounding,” Parker said.
Rebekkah Brunson made one of two free throws with 23.4 seconds left to give the Lynx a 74-73 lead. Parker answered with a layup on the other end that Maya Moore countered with a jumper. Then Ogwumike hustled her way over to the loose ball after Sylvia Folwes blocked her first attempt. She coolly swished it.
Lindsay Whalen’s heave from just inside halfcourt bounced high off the backboard, setting off the celebration for the Sparks and silencing the sellout crowd of 19,423.
Moore had 23 points and 11 assists for the Lynx, who fell short of matching the WNBA record of four championships. The Houston Comets won four straight titles from 1997-2000. The Lynx played in the finals for the fifth time in the last six years. They won three.
“The team that won this game deserved to win the game,” Moore said, “so it’s just hard to have it come that close.”
Chelsea Gray reeled off 11 consecutive points for the Sparks, capping that run with a smooth up-and-under layup to put them in front 60-59 early in the fourth quarter. Parker’s putback with 3:06 left gave L.A. a 71-63 lead, putting the Lynx in trouble.
But Moore seized the moment with a 3-pointer that brought Minnesota within four points, and Parker forced an off-balance 3 on the other end. Whalen stole the ball from Kristi Toliver and finished the fast break with a layup to tie the game at 71, setting up the final flurry.
On the next play, Ogwumike hit a jumper that appeared to come after the shot clock expired. The officials signaled for a review but never looked at the basket. Los Angeles led 73-71 with just over a minute left. Seimone Augustus answered with a jumper, but those points proved to be critical.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, making sure to credit the Sparks for their performance was livid about the non-call afterward.
“It’s not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong, OK? These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league. Because it is not fair to these great players that we have,” Reeve said.
The WNBA’s new postseason format with the field ordered by overall record regardless of conference sure worked well, leading to this classic matchup between the two teams that fought all summer for the top seed and featuring several of the league’s biggest stars.
“I hope that we gained a lot of fans from around the world and around this country,” Augustus said.
The game was remarkably close, with 24 lead changes and 11 ties with no team ever leading by double digits.
The sea of green T-shirts donned by almost everyone in the crowd produced a deafening soundtrack from start to finish befitting a game for the trophy.
Even Johnson was there, wearing all black while sitting courtside to root for the Sparks team he’s a part-owner of and spoke to after the loss at home in Game 4 on Sunday. His presence was all the more impressive considering the Dodgers, the other pro club he’s invested in, were playing baseball in Los Angeles at the same time in Game 5 of their National League championship series.
“They had to believe they could do it on a tough home court. This team Minnesota is tremendous,” Johnson said. “We just beat the champions so I give them a lot of credit to.”
The Lynx had celebrity backing, too, with Timberwolves players including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Belica in the seats to support the women they share an arena with.