Here’s why Sparks, who had two past MVPs to turn to at end of Game 1, gave Chelsea Gray the ball

Sparks guard Chelsea Gray shoots the game-winning shot over the defense of Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore on Sunday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
(Renee Jones Schneider / Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Chelsea Gray watched her highlight when family members texted it to her, and again when it popped up on her Twitter feed. But the point guard hardly indulged in her game-winning moment.

On Monday, a day after knocking down a jump shot with two seconds remaining to lift the Sparks to an 85-84 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Gray offered an alternative ending.

“It was a great shot,” she said. “But I also saw that there were two people on me, so one person was open. I could have probably hit somebody to win it as well.”

Gray might get the chance on Tuesday as the Sparks continue their pursuit of consecutive WNBA titles in Game 2 of the Finals, where last-second shots have become customary.

Against the Lynx in the best-of-five series last season, guard Alana Beard hit a game-winner in Game 1, and forward Nneka Ogwumike hit a last-second shot in Game 5 to clinch the championship.

Gray’s willingness to take the game-winning shot Sunday, along with her desire to pass, is why teammates encouraged Sparks coach Brian Agler to get the ball into her hands after a final timeout.

“The confidence that they give her in that kind of way allows her to make those kind of plays,” Agler said.

Said Ogwumike: “She makes plays and she doesn’t back down.”

Gray scored a career-high 27 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, to help the Sparks avoid a monumental collapse. The Lynx threatened to complete the greatest comeback in WNBA playoff history after falling behind 28-2 in the first quarter. Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, the WNBA’s most valuable player this season, scored 22 points and forward Maya Moore scored 27 — including 10 in the fourth quarter and a layup to put Minnesota ahead by a point with 6.5 seconds left — before Gray made her shot.

“She had it going,” said forward Candace Parker, who scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. “She carried us down the stretch.”

Gray, a third-year player from Duke, was an unlikely hero on a team that features Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP and four-time All-Star, and Ogwumike, last season’s WNBA MVP. Gray gained the trust of her teammates with her reputation for resiliency — she overcame two serious knee injuries at Duke — and her ability to endure tough coaching from Agler.

“He wants to get a lot out of me,” Gray said. “It’s hard sometimes in the heat of the moment.”

Said Parker: “Brian was so hard on her last year and he is still hard on her this year. She’s calm, doesn’t get rattled.”

Agler says Gray doesn’t take his coaching personally, a key to her success.

“She wants to be held accountable,” Agler said. “She wants to be looked at as somebody that can keep getting better and improving.”

Sticking together

After joining their NFL brethren and remaining in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem before Game 1, the Sparks had yet to decide what they’ll do for Game 2.

Ogwumike said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin inspired the Sparks to remain in the locker room.

“People had different ideas about what they wanted to do,” Ogwumike said, adding, “But everyone agreed on going into the locker room.”

The Lynx remained on court, locking arms.

Parker said the demonstration was not meant “to be a show,” but was to make everyone on the team feel comfortable, regardless of their stance.

“We’re solid, we’re a unit, we’re not divisive,” Parker said. “We’re for equality.”

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry