MINNEAPOLIS — Shortly after longtime basketball coach Pat Summitt passed away in June after a long battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Los Angeles Sparks star and former Tennessee standout Candace Parker declared in a post-game interview that "from here on out, I’m playing for her."
On Thursday, in front of a raucous crowd in Minnesota, Parker won Summitt a WNBA title when the Sparks beat the Lynx 77-76 in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals.
The title is Los Angeles’ first since 2002 and the first of Parker’s career. It comes at the end of what’s been a trying year for the longtime Sparks star who in addition to losing Summitt was surprisingly snubbed from the Olympic squad for the first time since 2008. Before the game, the team said they were playing at least in part for her.
"We don’t talk about it, but I think it’s obvious," said regular-season MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who hit the game-winner. "She’s a special individual and I think that doing something like this would mean a lot not just to her but for me to do for her. I think that it would kind of her signify a testament to my growth and show her this is what I want to do for you. This is what I want to do for our team. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way."
Before the game, Lynx guard Renee Montgomery predicted it would be a "knockout, drag-out" game and it was.
Parker, who was named Finals MVP led the Sparks with 28 points and 12 rebounds in what was an incredibly physical match-up. The Sparks found themselves in foul trouble early in the game. Ogwumike sat out most of the second quarter after picking up her third foul with a little more than six minutes left in the quarter and then her fourth with 6:46 left in the third.
Essence Carson picked up her third foul with just under two minutes left in the half and her fourth with six minutes remaining in the third quarter. Kristi Toliver picked up her third with 27 seconds remaining in the half and fourth quickly at the start of the second.
Parker at times looked visibly frustrated with the Lynx's physical play, at one point touching her mouth after appearing to get elbowed on defense. With seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Lynx center Sylvia Fowles went to the bench with an injured hand, and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was issued a technical foul. Minutes later, Toliver picked up her fifth foul and Ogwumike picked up her fifth with just under five minutes to play in the game.
Despite the Sparks’ foul troubles, neither team was able to break away. There were 24 lead changes and neither team went up by more than six points until the Sparks broke away with just under three minutes left to take a 71-63 lead, which quickly evaporated. With less than two minutes remaining, Seimone Augustus hit a jumper to tie the game at 73.
With about 1:15 left in the game, Ogwumike hit a baseline jumper. But it shouldn't have counted. The shot clock ran out. The officials continued play and did not stop to review the bucket.
"It was reviewable at the time when she shot it. The referees at that point didn't think anything was wrong. They didn't understand it was at the end of the clock. They didn't hear the shot clock. When they put the ball in play, the play is no longer reviewable," Reeve said.
"It's really unfortunate that players continually put themselves out there playing and competing at a really high level whether it was the 8 second (no) call in the game in L.A. -- it doesn't matter. The game today -- it's not fair to the players. It's not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong," Reeve added. "These players are so invested and something must be done about the officiating in this league because it is not fair to these great players that we have."
On Friday, the WNBA released a statement saying it was a bad call.
"After reviewing postgame video, we have determined that Nneka Ogwumike’s shot with 1:14 remaining in regulation time should not have counted due to a shot-clock violation, and that the referees improperly failed to review the play under the instant replay rules," the statement reads.
Rebekkah Brunson missed a free throw with 23.4 seconds remaining but made one to put the Lynx up by one. Parker then put in a shot in the paint to make it 75-74 with just under 20 seconds remaining. Maya Moore put her team up by one, and then Ogwumike hit the winning shot for the Sparks.
With the win, the Sparks denied the Lynx bid at securing their spot as the next great dynasty in the WNBA. A championship for Minnesota would have tied the record for team titles, held by the now-defunct Houston Comets, who won the league's first four championships between 1997-2000.
Moore had 23 points, 11 assists and six rebounds for the Lynx.