Candace Parker is finally in the WNBA Finals. Her first trip to the championship caps off an eventful, and at times difficult, year for the Los Angeles Sparks star.
She was left off the Olympic team despite being a two-time gold medalist and mourned the passing of her college coach, Tennessee's Pat Summitt. Now she has a chance to win her first WNBA title, the only thing missing from her incredible basketball resume.
Parker scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Sparks beat the Chicago Sky, 95-75, on Tuesday night to advance to the WNBA Finals.
"It's been a long journey. We haven't done anything yet. We haven't accomplished our goal," Parker said.
Parker shot six of 10 from the field and made 14 of her 15 free throws to lead the Sparks to the finals for the first time since 2003 after they won championships in 2001 and 2002.
"It's been an emotional year for her," Sparks Coach Brian Agler said. "She had a great year, a great playoff. We all know Candace is one of the best in the world. We like it when the ball is in her hands."
Parker missed the finals her rookie year in 2008 when the Sparks lost in the Western Conference finals.
"You're young. You think, 'Oh, we'll be back next year,'" Parker said. "That didn't happen, then the next and the next. You look up and it's eight years. I really appreciate this."
Kristi Toliver added 21 points while league MVP Nneka Ogwumike finished with 17 points and nine rebounds for the second-seeded Sparks, who won the semifinal series, 3-1.
They will face the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in a best-of-five series for the league title. The top-seeded Lynx swept Phoenix in the other semifinal and will be going for their fourth title in six years.
Cappie Pondexter scored 19 points and rookie Imani Boyette added 15 to lead the fourth-seeded Sky. Clarissa Dos Santos had 14 points and Jessica Breland 12. Chicago played without 2015 MVP and leading scorer Elena Delle Donne, who has a thumb injury.
The Sparks won the first two games of the series by an average of 17.5 points before the Sky took Game 3, 70-66, on Sunday.
"For the most part we played with a lot more composure tonight," Agler said.
After shooting six of 33 from beyond the arc in Game 3 against the Sky's zone, the Sparks made nine of their 13 three-pointers Tuesday. Toliver hit all four of her long-range shots.
"We just countered (the zone) with movement," Ogwumike said. "A lot of times you can get stuck literally without moving the ball and bodies in the zone. We did a great job of moving the ball and recognizing gaps."
The Sparks shot 55% from the field and made 28 of their 30 free throws.
The Sky got within eight early in the fourth quarter before Parker scored the next eight points on a three-pointer and five free throws to put the game away.