Chelsea Gray’s jumper helps Sparks avoid collapse in Game 1 win over Lynx
Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray busted out a dance move near center court, as teammates circled around, singing and chanting.
They had plenty to celebrate.
Moments earlier, Gray made an off-balance jump shot with two seconds on the clock to avoid a monumental collapse by the Sparks, who defeated the Minnesota Lynx 85-84 on Sunday in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
“Athletes dream of that moment,” Gray said. “Especially at this magnitude and at this stage.”
Gray’s basket silenced a crowd of 11,823 at Williams Arena that created a deafening amount of noise and became increasingly inspired as the Lynx overcame a 26-point deficit to tie the score at 79 with 1:16 remaining. Four lead changes followed.
“We love making things interesting,” Sparks forward Candace Parker said.
Coach Brian Agler drew the game-winning play for Gray, at Parker’s insistence, during a final timeout.
“Chelsea Gray made some very, very big plays throughout the course of the game and especially down the stretch,” Agler said, adding, “Candace was encouraging me, especially, to get it in her hands.”
Gray, voted a WNBA All-Star in her third season, finished with a career-high 27 points and six assists.
“Adrenaline was just running through me,” Gray said. “I’m just happy we got the win.”
Said Parker: “There’s not many teams that could finish it off and have the composure to finish it off. Chelsea made huge plays.”
The need to make a game-winning shot is a scenario the Sparks are familiar with.
Last season in the Finals, a five-game series against the Lynx twice came down to a last-second basket as the Sparks went on to clinch their first WNBA title since 2002.
Forward Nneka Ogwumike, who made the game-winner in Game 5 last season, said it was no surprise that Sunday’s game came down to the final possession.
“It’s definitely something that we’re used to,” Ogwumike said. “We understand the stakes and we’re here to show up.”
At the outset, it didn’t appear that any late-game heroics would be needed.
After remaining in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem — a decision made by the team to demonstrate unity, Ogwumike said — the Sparks made six consecutive shots and opened on a 28-2 run.
They did not allow the Lynx to grab a single rebound, and led 32-11 at the end of the first quarter.
“We were just determined,” Ogwumike said. “That was more so a mentality rather than a game plan.”
The Lynx responded in the second quarter behind forward Maya Moore and center Sylvia Fowles, the WNBA’s most valuable player.
The Lynx outscored the Sparks 22-11 to make it a 10-point game at halftime.
Fowles finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
“When you’re up like that with what’s on the line, a team is going to punch back,” said Ogwumike, who finished with 11 points. “We saw that in them and I think that we could have handled it a little bit better.”
In the fourth quarter, Moore scored 10 of her 27 points, and Lynx guard Seimone Augustus scored nine of her 19 — including a three-point shot to give Minnesota an 82-81 lead with 49 seconds left.
Ogwumike’s five-foot basket put the Sparks back up by one with 26 seconds remaining.
A loose ball scramble and foul moments later sent Sparks guard Essence Carson to the free-throw line, where she missed both shots. Moore’s layup with 6.5 seconds left put the Lynx ahead by one, setting the stage for Gray.
“It was exhausting,” said Parker, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Agler said he was not surprised that the Lynx managed a comeback, given the history of the two teams. The Sparks won the regular-season series 2-1.
“But I’m also really proud and excited about how we started the game and sort of how we finished,” Agler said. “We had to make plays at both ends, and we did.”
Parker, Ogwumike and Alana Beard, the WNBA’s defensive player of the year, played a majority of the game in foul trouble.
Beard finished with 10 points, and point guard Odyssey Sims scored 16.
The Sparks and Lynx will play Game 2 in the best-of-five series on Tuesday in Minneapolis before the series moves to Los Angeles for Game 3.
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