Lynx edge Sparks to win epic battle of the unbeatens

Kristi Toliver on the fast break with Renee Montgomery in pursuit. Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360.
Kristi Toliver on the fast break with Renee Montgomery in pursuit. Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360.

Los Angeles, Calif. – The much-anticipated match up of the undefeated Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx lived up to its billing Tuesday, as it took a three-point shot in the last three seconds to seal the deal for the visitors, 72-69.

In a back-and-forth, physical contest that featured 17 lead changes and 12 ties, the Sparks held a 69-67 lead from 2:11 remaining to the 28-second mark, when Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles tied it with a hook shot. The Sparks missed on their next possession, turning the ball over. Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen then sprinted up court and passed to a wide open Renee Montgomery on the left wing, who sank the shot with 2.9 seconds left.

Los Angeles forward Candace Parker was fouled and missed her first free throw. She purposefully missed the second and was able to rebound the ball and get it to Kristi Toliver, but her shot was too late.

The Lynx improved to a WNBA record 13-0, and the Sparks are now 11-1. Seimone Augustus led the way for Minnesota with 13 points, and Natasha Howard and Rebekkah Brunson each added 12. Top scorer Maya Moore pulled a hamstring in the fourth quarter and didn’t play the last seven minutes of the game.

Augustus said the Lynx had to focus to ward off the Sparks attacks.

“Both teams were active on the defensive end, and it was just a matter of settling in on the offensive end once we got over the defensive tenacity and intensity they were bringing,” Augustus said. “We had to clean up our turnovers, I am sure they had quite a few points off our turnovers and those are easy baskets – transition baskets.”

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve attributed the win to getting stops.

“I thought our defense was really good. I think Natasha Howard plays just big, and really put pressure on their interior in our transition game,” she said. “We talked about it, and we just think that it was our stops. We had a couple people that hit some big shots in that stretch…..we dug in and got good stops.”

Toliver had 20 points for the Sparks, while Essence Carson added 11 and Alana Beard, 10. Both teams ended up shooting about 40 percent, but the Lynx lead the rebounding battle the entire way, tallying 42 in the end to the host’s 29. They converted many of those boards into 20 second-chance points, and scored 36 points in the paint to the Sparks’ 26.

Beard said Los Angeles’ poor rebounding hurt them.

“That’s why they were getting their baskets is because of rebounds, whether it was a post up or a kick out to the open shooter,” she said. “Those are things we can control, so that’s a positive to take away from this.”

Lavender said early-game turnovers were also a factor.

“Offensive rebounds early in the game got them off to a good start,” she said. “We’ve really got to get a body on people. Our turnovers were really crucial; at times we needed to execute and we turned the ball over. Nine turnovers in the first half is not typical of us.”

Top Sparks scorers Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were held to nine points a piece in the game, in different scenarios. Parker was 3-13, while Ogwumike took only three shots on the day. Coach Brian Agler acknowledged that Los Angeles has to remedy that issue.

“We’ve got to find ways to get Nneka more opportunities,” he said. “We’ve got to manufacture some looks for her, and just sharpen our overall execution.”

It was that word – execute – that was also on the lips of every Sparks player after the game. Each pointed to breakdowns in late-game execution as the cause of the loss.

Seimone Augustus looks to pass around Alana Beard. Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360.
Seimone Augustus looks to pass around Alana Beard. Photo by Jevone Moore/Full Image 360.

“It was end of the game execution,” veteran forward Jantel Lavender explained. “It came down to a couple of possessions. This was the first time we had to execute at the end of the game. And getting the ball to the right people at the right times – we didn’t do a good job of that. When you have a great shooter like Montgomery, you’ve got to stay attached to her. No one like that should get an open look.”

Toliver said the Sparks had chances to win in the final minute.

“The entire game we fought hard – we always do,” Toliver said. “But they out-executed us by one play. We had an opportunity before that to execute, and we didn’t. Obviously that’s something we need to get better at and be more mindful of.”

“That’s going to be something we change or fix, because that’s what championship teams do is they execute in those big moments.”

The Sparks, now a veteran-laden team of stars who have been playing together for years, have learned to take their losses in stride. Yesterday was no exception.

“We should feel confident,” Toliver said about the team’s attitude going forward. “We didn’t play our best game, and there’s many ways we can improve. We can say that when we’ve been winning, and now we can say that with a three-point loss. It’s certainly not the end of the world.”

“We just have to continue to get better….and execute it. We’re a veteran group and we want each other to be successful. I have no worries that we won’t fix what we need to fix.”

Parker said the work to correct issues would begin immediately.

“We’ll learn from it,” she said. “This team is a mature team, we’re tough and we’re focused. This isn’t going to make us fall apart.”

Los Angeles will be working quickly, as they travel to Minnesota Wednesday to face the Lynx again Friday night. Lavender relishes the quick turnaround.

“(Facing them again right away) – that’s the great part about it,” Lavender said. “People think losses are bad…but it helps you understand what you need to get better at and work on in order to be a championship contender at the end of the season. Obviously getting a body on people is one of our weaknesses. With some teams it didn’t hurt us as much, but with this kind of team, you can’t let them get second shots like that.”

The Sparks post-game Tuesday were reminiscent of another Agler-coached team: the 2010 Seattle Storm. Prior to an outdoor game that they came to play against Los Angeles in June, 2010, Storm players each repeated the same goals to reporters, independently of one another.

After the loss to the Lynx, Sparks players and Agler each mentioned the importance of end-of-the-game execution, like they were reading it from a book. In 2010, Seattle went on to win a WNBA Championship.

This year’s veteran Lynx team arguably has two complete starting five teams. But many of those same players were part of the 2012 team, which had an epic collapse in the WNBA Finals against the Indiana Fever.

It is a reminder that anything can happen in the world of sports, and that it is not how a team starts, but how they finish.

As for Tuesday’s “game of the year,” Beard said the Sparks can’t be disappointed, despite their loss.

“It’s a lot of fun. You’re competing and you’re going back and forth and it comes down to one possession. Every possession counts,” she said.

“It was a great competitive game, and it was great for the game of basketball.”

The Lynx and Sparks tip off at 5 p.m. Pacific/7 p.m. Central Friday.

Brian Love contributed to this report.