Minneapolis, Minn. – Alana Beard’s stat line will show only four points scored, but it was the last two that proved to be the most crucial for her Los Angeles Sparks in Sunday’s WNBA Finals Game 1.
Tied with the Minnesota Lynx at 76 with 24 seconds remaining, Sparks guard Chelsea Gray ran out the clock and dished it to the veteran Beard on the right wing. At the two second mark, Beard launched a shot over Lynx forward Maya Moore’s outstretched hand, and the ball sailed through the net just before time expired. Final score: 78-76.
Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver lead the offensive attack for Los Angeles with 19 points each, while Candace Parker and Gray added 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Beard said that with time running down, she didn’t have to think twice about shooting the game winner.
“I was just watching the play, to be honest with you,” Beard said. “I knew what we were looking for. I saw that Minnesota did a great job of taking away the options, which was expected, and Chelsea kind of rejected the screen and drove and read the defense, and at one point, however many seconds left on the clock, you kind of have to take that shot, so I threw it up.”
It was the first game-winner for Beard in her pro career, but she was quick to say that it was the play that lead up to the game’s final seconds that lead to the result.
“It was two big defensive stops, but I thought we had a few possessions before that that we put together a string of stops, and that was an important stint in this game,” Beard said. “But yeah, defense definitely won this game tonight for us.”
The game lived up to its potential, as the league’s top two teams battled back and forth from buzzer to buzzer. There were 19 ties and 10 lead changes, and neither team lead by more than five points. Defense was the drum beat for the Sparks, who forced the Lynx into a lot of turnovers in the first half, in particular, and held Moore scoreless until the third quarter.
Beard was key in that defense, and her efforts down the stretch set up the opportunity for her final shot, as she blocked Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen and forced a Moore possession.
Sparks coach Brian Agler noted Beard’s intangibles, which don’t always show up in the box score.
“You know, honestly I can’t be more happy for an individual than Alana Beard,” he said. “If you think about her, first of all, her first championship series, and all the injuries that she’s had to deal with throughout her career, and her staying with it…..her presence, her leadership, obviously how disruptive she can be defensively, and then for her to hit a shot like that, it was incredible. I’m really happy for her, big play.”
Moore, Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen each had 18 points for Minnesota.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve credited the intensity and passion of Los Angeles throughout the game.
“They handled adversity well, and we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Reeve said. “We thought we had some good stretches. I think we were up four, had a couple chances to extend it, and we just made some bad plays that cost us.”
“We didn’t play a clean game offensively in terms of passing the basketball, cutting and moving. A lot of our passes were deflected, which you can’t do. Again, give LA credit, especially somebody like Beard who really prides herself on her defense.”
The game served as a microcosm of the 2016 season for both teams, who both began the season taking turns tying the league record for most wins to begin a year. Each also handed the other their first losses of the season on their own home courts.
Last year Minnesota dropped the first game of the Finals series, and came back to win their third title. Whalen said the team is keeping Sunday’s loss in perspective.
“It’s one game,” Whalen said. “You know, you regroup, you see what you can do to recover and get back….we have a group that’s been together for a long time and we’ve been a part of a lot of these, so that will be our focus, and…it’s the Finals. It’s what you expect. We’ve got to come back for Game 2.”
The second game of the series continues at Target Center Tuesday at 5 p.m. Pacific/8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2.
Sue Favor co-authored this report.