With the score tied in Game 1 of the WNBA finals and 24.7 seconds to play Sunday, Sparks Coach Brian Agler didn’t call Alana Beard’s number.
The veteran guard had scored only two points to that point and was on the court with Candace Parker, WNBA most valuable player Nneka Ogwumike and the sharp-shooting Kristi Tolliver. She was at most a decoy, almost an afterthought.
The Minnesota Lynx thought so, too, and left her open in the corner.
Beard calmly stepped into a jump shot and tumbled into the Sparks bench as the ball fell through the net. The buzzer sounded as it did, the Sparks taking a 1-0 lead heading into Game 2 on Tuesday (5 p.m. PDT on ESPN2) at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Beard was swarmed by her teammates as the early hero of the best-of-five series. But her Game 1 contributions went well beyond the winning jumper, just like her value to the Sparks transcends her less-than-stellar offensive numbers.
“Everybody is going to talk about [Beard’s] shot,” Parker said after Game 1. “But the key defense two possessions before that, that she blocked Lindsey Whalen and she got a steal with Maya Moore, those were the two possessions that were crucial for us.”
Beard, in her 12th WNBA season, is playing in the finals for the first time. She was a relied-upon scorer at the start of her career but hasn’t averaged more than 10 points a game since her first season with the Sparks in 2012. The 5-foot-11 guard averaged 7.1 points and 29.3 minutes a game this season, scoring a season-high 12 on May 24.
Her biggest contributions come on defense, which makes her a great fit in the Sparks’ star-studded starting five. That also makes her especially important against the Lynx, who are led by Moore (23. 8 points a game during the playoffs) and have other talented perimeter scorers in Whalen and Seimone Augustus. All three played on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in Rio, as did Lynx center Sylvia Fowles.
For most of Sunday’s game, Beard was assigned to Whalen while Essence Carson guarded Moore. Down the stretch, Beard switched onto Moore and pressed up on her at every opportunity. Her defensive presence stretched from the opening tip to the final possessions of the Sparks’ 78-76 win.
“She made some great plays; she’s a great player,” Whalen said of Beard after Game 1. “Give her credit, she had a lot of energy and she made some big plays.”
If the Sparks are to capture their first WNBA title since 2002, their defense will need to stay stingy. The Lynx led the Western Conference by averaging 85.8 points a game during the regular season. That helped them to a WNBA-best 28-6 record and they swept the Phoenix Mercury to advance to the finals.
Two of the Lynx’s seven losses have been against the Sparks, however, and the Sparks held them to fewer than 80 points in both games.
So while Beard punctuated Game 1 with an unlikely jump shot, it was the defensive effort she spearheaded that tilted the series in the Sparks’ favor.
“Um, I don’t think I ever hit a game-winner,” Beard said casually after the game. “So it’s pretty cool.”
There are, after all, more important things for her to worry about.
Follow Jesse Dougherty on Twitter @dougherty_jesse