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Sparks determined to repeat as WNBA champions

Sparks determined to repeat as WNBA champions
The Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike looks to pass against the Phoenix Mercury during the WNBA semifinals Sept. 17. The Sparks' WNBA Finals rematch with the Minnesota Lynx begins Sunday. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Once in a while, someone will mention her last-second put-back shot, or ask what it was like to make the game-winning basket in the WNBA Finals last season.

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike will indulge the questions and revisit history, but reflecting on the past isn't exactly in her nature.

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"It's nothing that I really think of," Ogwumike said.

Instead, Ogwumike moves forward and prepares for what's next.

"I focus a lot on what's directly ahead of us," she said.

In this case, that's Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday, a rematch of last season's five-game thriller that resulted in the Sparks' first title since 2002, when they repeated as champions.

A second repeat, and a fourth championship, is only three wins away in a best-of-five series.

"We set a certain plan in terms of how we were going to get here," guard-forward Alana Beard said of returning to the finals. "And I think this team has been persistent with that plan."

The Lynx finished with the WNBA's best record, 27-7, and with it gained home-court advantage. The Sparks finished 26-8.

"It's nice to be back," Ogwumike said. "It shows the persistence of our organization and what we're built to be, what we want to be, a consistent championship caliber team."

The Sparks returned a core group of starters, and won the regular-season series against the Lynx. But like the finals last season, the Sparks will play the role of the underdog.

"That's nothing that's never really mattered to us," Ogwumike said. "We always love the challenge."

Coach Brian Agler said that veteran leadership helped maintain a championship culture as the new players, including point guard Odyssey Sims, learned his system.

"Whenever you make changes or have changes, it does affect the dynamic," Agler said. "The standards are high and people really have to accept that and embrace that."

Ogwumike, the WNBA's most valuable player last season, and Candace Parker, a 10th-year pro, create a dynamic frontcourt duo.

Ogwumike is averaging 18.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

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"She sets the tone," Agler said.

Parker is averaging 16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

Point guard Chelsea Gray pairs with Sims in the backcourt and Beard was named the defensive player of the year after leading the league in steals.

"You have to score, but defense will ultimately decide the game," Beard said. "This team has been extremely fortunate to have a defense-conscious coach who has come in and implemented his system."

The Sparks and Lynx have the top two defenses in the league, and both will be coming off a week of rest after sweeping their semifinal opponents.

"Minnesota is a very strong team," Ogwumike said. "We have to come out with that confidence and that attitude that you're here and ready to play."

The Lynx are led by center Sylvia Fowles, this season's most valuable player, and forward Maya Moore. Fowles averages a double-double and Moore averages 17.3 points a game.

"They know how to win," Beard said.

Alger says rebounding will be critical to the Sparks' success.

The Sparks needed two last-second baskets to win the series last season, Ogwumike's and another by Beard in Game 1.

This time, they'd like to keep the drama to a minimum — but Ogwumike is far from ruling out the need for late-game heroics.

"I'm sure you'll see it again this year," she said.

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry

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