Last night, the “Battle for First” took place. It was late, as the Lynx took on the Sparks in Los Angeles on national TV. There is no love lost between these two. 13 games into the season, Renee Montgomery hit a dagger three to win in the city of angels, both teams without a loss up until that point. The very next game, L.A. got revenge as they throttled Minnesota back here in the North.
After the Sparks handed the Lynx their first loss, they started to look like the better team. They have a star studded roster, just like the Lynx, headlined by Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. The latter is the frontrunner for MVP as “Gnarly Nneka” (yes I came up with that) is having one historic season. She’s shooting over 70 percent from the field—on pace for a new WNBA record—and is leading her team in points (19.8 PPG) and rebounds (9 RPG). She has been a force to be reckoned with all season and is the best player on the Sparks right now.
Entering last night, both teams were tied for first at 24-5, meaning this game had enormous playoff implications. The top three teams—the Lynx, Sparks, and Liberty—have already clinched postseason births. Whoever won this game would have an effective two-game lead on the other, while also clinching the double bye in the new playoff format. The loser would have to win one remaining game, which is likely for both, to clinch the other spot. Anything can happen in this last stretch but the winner was guaranteed a trip to the semifinals.
After Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore carried the team over the last two games, they thought, “Why not again?” The two combined for 41 points, 16 rebounds, and six assists to hand the Sparks their second loss at home this year, both of which have come to the Lynx. The final score was 77-74, though the Lynx dominated the majority of the game.
Their game plan was clear: shut down three-point specialist Kristi Toliver on defense, and attack Ogwumike and Parker on offense.
Toliver was unstoppable in the first two matches, scoring a combined 49 points, as the team has struggled to contain three point shooting all year. That wasn’t the case last night. During one timeout, head coach Cheryl Reeve could be heard on the broadcast yelling “We’re trapping Toliver” over and over. It worked, as she was held to 11 points, most of those coming in the fourth during their desperation comeback.
Fowles was tasked yet again to control the paint offensively. She repeatedly had her way with the Sparks defense and it seemed as if they were trying to limit Ogwumike’s defensive efficiency by tiring her out on the other end. It worked for most of the game, and the Lynx took a 42-37 lead into the half. Moore struggled in the first half and you knew if she ever got hot, this team would increase the gap.
After the Lynx extended their lead to 10 in the third, the Sparks started making adjustments. They switched up their defensive assignments and suddenly the team couldn’t find Fowles. The Sparks pulled within four going into the last quarter and all the momentum seemed to be going in their favor.
That’s when Maya decided Fowles had done enough by herself.
She scored 14 of her 20 points in the fourth, at one point scoring eight in a row for the squad. She took a ridiculously long three at the end of the third, with time remaining to get a better shot, but she made up for that gaffe by nailing a slightly-less ridiculously long three when defended by Ogwumike in fourth. That fueled the Lynx yet again to go on a run, eventually building a 12 point lead with 1:47 left in the game.
You just knew the game was over yet, though. The Lynx made a series of mistakes late in the game as they were trying not to lose. Eventually, trailing seven points, Chelsea Gray took an inbound and was inexplicably fouled taking a three-point shot. It was by Maya and you could argue it either way but she shouldn’t even put herself in that position. Gray made the first two free throws and intentionally missed the third. The Sparks got the rebound and Gray ended up hitting a circus three while falling out of bounds. There was only a second remaining and Lindsay Whalen made one free throw to bring the lead back to three. She then missed intentionally as the Sparks had no timeouts, and time expired on the rebound.
It was another game the Lynx almost let slip away, and they can’t excuse some of the losses to sub-par teams that have been able to come back, but the Sparks are a very different level of competition at this point and beating them is enough to forgive the late game execution.
Fowles ended the game with 21 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks. She had such a good all-around game after going down early in the first in a scary moment. Her knee hyper-extended as she fell awkwardly going for a rebound, only to return minutes later to carry the torch for most of the game. Moore ended with 20 points, seven rebounds, and two steals. If these two can keep this momentum going, I don’t see any team matching up well with the Lynx.
They are now in sole possession of first place, with essentially a two game lead as they hold the tie breaker. With the next three games on the road, this was a huge victory. The team has some tough matchups, but after watching last night, it’s clear they can handle any challenge that comes their way.
The team takes on the San Antonio Stars this Sunday at 3:30 PM.