Candace Parker's resume now complete with WNBA title
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For all Candace Parker had accomplished on the court, that glowing resume had one glaring omission - a WNBA title.
The championship she'd been chasing with Los Angeles since the Sparks made her the first pick in the 2008 draft was all the more special at the end of a trying season.
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 professional championship after winning two NCAA titles at Tennessee under coach Pat Summitt, who died this summer.
''I wasn't upholding my end of the bargain in this series for my teammates,'' Parker said. ''I think in years past maybe I was doing a lot and maybe I could've used a little help, but this year it was on me. My teammates were doing their part. I had to step up and do mine.''
Parker was left off the U.S. Olympic team this year after helping them win a gold medal in the previous two Summer Games. The two-time league MVP was also conspicuously missing from the All-WNBA teams announced during the playoffs. She'd previously been picked for the first team four times and the second team twice.
''She's been through so much,'' Ogwumike said. ''She's probably the most misunderstood person in the league. I told her I wanted her to get one.''
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 in an ode to Summitt. Parker cried as she leaned over to hug her coach.
''I've never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I've never been around anyone I'm happy for more than Candace,'' said Agler, adding: ''She stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it, was persistent.''
Parker said she 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.
Beaten on the boards in their Game 4 loss in Los Angeles, the Sparks controlled that area this time. They had a 33-27 rebounding edge and a 44-30 advantage in points in the paint, playing interior defense tough enough to make the Lynx miss many of their putbacks and layups.
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 Fowles 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.
Magic Johnson, the Sparks part-owner who gave the team a pep talk after losing Game 4, was handed the trophy and congratulated the team.
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.
Down 71-63 with 3:06 left after Parker's turnaround, the Lynx roared back with an 8-0 run that included a 3-pointer by Moore. 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 sank a jumper that appeared to come after the shot clock expired. The officials signaled for a review but never looked at a replay. 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, while 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 seeding format based on overall record regardless of conference sure worked well. It produced this classic matchup between two teams that fought all summer for the top seed and featured several of the league's biggest stars. The game was remarkably close, with 24 lead changes, 11 ties and no team ever leading by double digits.
''I hope that we gained a lot of fans from around the world and around this country,'' Augustus said.
Maybe Minnesota's core four of Augustus, Brunson, Moore and Whalen, together for all five trips to the finals, has another run left.
''I tell these guys how proud I am of them for more than just their skills and just kind of what we're doing to change minds, if you will, move forward in society,'' Reeve said, adding: ''They just said stick a fork in it last year, and all we did was get back to the finals and have the best record in the league.''
This story corrects spelling to Fowles in 13th paragraph.