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Sparks defeat Lynx for first WNBA championship since 2002

Candace Parker, Magic Johnson
Sparks’ Candace Parker, right, touches the trophy held by team owner Magic Johnson after the Sparks won the WNBA championship title over the Minnesota Lynx Thursday.
(Jim Mone / Associated Press)

When the noise settled and the champagne stopped flying, a calm that lasted no more than 30 seconds inside the cramped visitors locker room, Candace Parker ducked into a quiet corner and put her arm around Nneka Ogwumike. 

Parker had spent the previous 30 minutes basking in the Sparks’ first WNBA championship since 2002. As soon as the buzzer sounded on the Sparks’ 77-76 win over the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday night, she laid flat on the Target Center floor as her teammates jumped on top of her. She proudly led her daughter, Lailaa, through an emotional on-court celebration. She yelled, “Where are the scissors? That net is coming down!” And then someone appeared with scissors, and it did.

She cried. She smiled. And now, with the weight of the franchise’s title drought lifted off her shoulders, she paused to take it all in. 

“Is this real?” Parker asked Ogwumike, looking at her with eyes reddened by champagne that flowed and tears that flowed harder. 

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“I feel like I’m going to wake up and this will have never happened. Tell me Nneka, is this real?”

Ogwumike did not have to say a thing, and she didn’t. She had already done her part in making the Sparks’ dreams a reality. The WNBA season — nearly six months of playing and practicing and plotting a path to this very moment — boiled down to 15.4 seconds. 

Lynx guard Maya Moore, who paced her team with 23 points and 11 assists in the decisive Game 5, hit a mid-range jumper to give her team a one-point lead. Sparks guard Chelsea Gray dribbled down, the crowd noise reaching deafening levels, and frantically took a mid-range jumper that bounced off the rim. 

But Ogwumike grabbed the rebound. The clock showed 4.9 seconds. The WNBA’s most valuable player took a shot that rimmed out, but grabbed the rebound. The clock showed 3.1 seconds. She made a five-foot shot while falling onto her back to put the Sparks ahead by one. The clock showed 2.1 seconds. 

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“I just thought, ‘Where’s the ball?’ ” Ogwumike said. “We needed a stop. We didn’t win yet. I was looking for the ball.”

Lindsey Whalen had it, and she weaved her way to half court before unleashing a prayer. The ball smacked off the backboard and fell to the hardwood. The clock showed all zeroes. 

“Then I thought, ‘We did it,’ ” Ogwumike said, fighting back tears in the locker room. “I could relax. I could celebrate. We did it.”

Before the series started in Minneapolis, the Sparks knew they were staring up at a mountain. 

The Lynx had won three championships in five years. Four of their five starters played on the U.S. Olympic team in Rio. They were the gold standard of the WNBA, three wins away from further cementing their legacy. 

“We just need to win three games by one point,” Parker told Ogwumike before Game 1. “Three games. One point.”

That’s nearly what the Sparks did, winning Game 1 by a point, Game 3 by 17 and Game 5 on Ogwumike’s third-chance shot. 

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After they climbed off Parker, the Sparks scatted about the court. 

Ogwumike and her family hugged in a tight huddle, and their sobs could be heard over the celebratory music. Alana Beard, whose buzzer-beating shot gave the Sparks a Game 1 win, squeezed her mother’s hand as they walked through the crowd. Gray, who scored the Sparks’ first six points of the fourth quarter Thursday, danced in the middle of a bobbing crowd and yelled, “We’re number one!” so everyone could hear. 

And then there was Parker, who scored a game-high 28 points and was named WNBA Finals most valuable player. After the Sparks doused each other with bottles of champagne in the locker room, Parker handed a plastic glass to each of her teammates.

Someone brought in the WNBA Finals trophy, and then each player raised her glass around it in a toast. 

“This is to the journey,” Parker said.

But Ogwumike had a different idea. They didn’t win the championship quietly, so they weren’t going to celebrate it that way either.

“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Ogwumike barked. “What did we have to win by?”

“One point!” the team yelled back. 

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“What did we have to win by?” Ogwumike asked again, her voice trembling and shrill.

“One point!” they all shot back, much louder this time, causing the protective plastic on their lockers to shake.

One point that made all the difference. One point that made history. 

jesse.dougherty@latimes.com

Follow Jesse Dougherty on Twitter @dougherty_jesse


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