Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)
In a game that lived up to all the hype and then some, Alana Beard’s fingerprints were all over the Los Angeles Sparks’ thrilling 78-76 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in a spine-tingling opener of the best-of-five WNBA Finals series at the Target Center Sunday afternoon.
From her memorable buzzer-beating shot in the corner that provided the winning margin to the two gigantic defensive plays she made down the stretch (blocking Lindsey Whalen’s shot and stealing a pass off an inbounds), Beard sparkled on both ends of the floor.
Sometimes in games with so much star power, unexpected heroes emerge to make a difference.
Beard has been the glue of the Sparks defense. A lockdown specialist, the former Duke sensation was named to the First Team All-Defense this season for the third time in her career.
A veteran and No. 2 draft pick of the Washington Mystics, the 34-year-old Beard understands the Sparks still have plenty of work to do.
While Beard was thrilled with sinking one of the greatest shots in the 20-year history of the WNBA, she knows the Minnesota’s capabilities. The Lynx dropped the opening game of last year’s Finals series to the Indiana Fever before prevailing in five games.
In that series the difference was another buzzer-beater -- Maya Moore's long bomb in Game 3 that assured the Lynx the safety valve of playing decisive Game 5 at home where Minnesota grabbed the third title to its collection.
Minnesota will look to replicate last season’s success when it hosts game two Tuesday at the Target Center. The Lynx won games two, three and five last year. Game time is 8 p.m. on ESPN2.
It was awesome so many people tuned in and witnessed Beard’s big shot as Game 1 delivered a 0.5 overnight rating, the best since 2010.
The matchup between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks resulted in a +25% increase from last year’s Game 1. The number could be higher Tuesday as there’s no NFL to take away viewers.
Still, give the WNBA credit for holding its own against the pro boys of the gridiron just as it did in 2003, the first time it went up against the NFL with the sensational best-of-three thriller won with a 2-0 comeback by Bill Laimbeer's former Detroit Shock after the then-two-time defending champs Sparks thumped the Motor City women in Game 1 at home.
Meanwhile, add to the big TV viewership from Sunday the word of mouth of how enthralling the opener was combined with the endless social media loops and SportsCenter highlights of Beard’s basket, a viewing record for the league is possible Tuesday night.
“Um, I don't think I've ever hit a game winner, so it's pretty cool,” Beard said following game one. “Pretty cool. But this is only one game, and that's how we think about it. We came in and did what we wanted to do. We wanted to get a win, so now we have another game.”
Just playing and performing at a high level is special for Beard, who has overcome her share of obstacles. She missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons because of ankle and foot injuries.
In 2015, Beard was grounded by plantar fasciitis. She played just 14 games in her fourth season with the Sparks.
Beard arrived in Los Angeles in 2012 with a reputation for being a dynamic scorer. She transformed into a human handcuff and is now one of the elite defenders on the planet.
She never lost faith that she would return to the floor and perform at a high level. She tolerated the pain, endured the surgeries, and persevered through rehab workouts. Beard is thriving as she has embraced her role for the tough-as-nails Sparks as a defensive dynamo.
She knows where opposing guards are going before they do. She understands the nuances of playing defense like watching her opponents’ waist and eyes. Beard is an irritant who knows what brand of deodorant every guard uses because she’s normally that close to them.
“It’s been a long journey for me,” Beard said following Monday’s practice. “I think I said it before a couple of days ago that I am the type of person that I have just trained my mind to stay in the moment.
"Yeah, injuries I have had them. All athletes have them. It’s been a tough journey for me, just as it would have been with any other athlete, but right now it’s this moment. It’s something that I am relishing and enjoying with the special people that we have.
“It’s one of the best feelings, something that you just replay over and over in your mind, and now that moment has come. It felt good. We won the game and that’s the most important thing.”
The Sparks know they need to be better in the second game if they are going to return home Friday night up two games on the reigning champions. Including the regular season, two of the four games between these titans have been decided in the final 10 seconds.
Renee Montgomery drained a 3-pointer in the first regular season game in Los Angeles to give the Lynx a dramatic win in June. They have split four games with the road team winning each contest.
“Obviously, we’re focusing mostly on ourselves and how we do things,” league MVP Nneka Ogwumike said. “They (Minnesota) have a lot of things that we need to stop, and so team defense is important and something we can’t get away from. I think mentally we have to be aggressive and that’s something that we did a really good job of yesterday.
"I think just sticking to what we know, and what we know is our offense. Our offense is very simple so keeping it very plain and understanding what we need to get out of our offense is what coach is harping on for us right now.”
Despite the setback, the Lynx aren’t panicking. Moore scored all 18 of her points in the second half to move into first place on the WNBA's career finals scoring list, passing former UConn great Diana Taurasi. The Lynx know that they need to tighten some things up as they committed 16 turnovers.
“We had a few hiccups here and there,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said. “Once we went back and looked at the video, it’s all things that we can correct, which is good. Offensively, we have to be a little bit more efficient and not have too many lost possessions where we’re not getting the shot that we want or getting into the position that we want.
“Defensively, we held them to 40 percent in the first half, which is something we always pride ourselves on, but we had a few players that got loose. Nneka [Ogwumike] got loose a little bit in the second half.
"Kristi started to hit a little bit and Chelsea Gray actually came in and gave them a big boost prior to [Alana] Beard hitting the shot. We clean up a few things on defense as well as take care of offensive possessions and we’ll be fine.”
The intensity for the second game will be ratcheted up a few notches especially as both teams play with a sense of super urgency. The game will be more physical and more than likely come down to the final three minutes.
“It’s always intense when you’re in The Finals when you have two of the best teams going up against each other,” Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles said. “We just have to focus on the things we didn’t do so well yesterday and continue to do the things we did great. I know that from the outside looking in a lot of people get caught up in Game 1, but it’s a long series.”