WNBA Finals: Moore's Play Sends Minnesota Over Los Angeles and Home for Decisive Game Five
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LOS ANGELES – It’s no coincidence that the Maya Moore era of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx has also been the championship era for the once forlorn franchise whose days seemed to be numbered before Cheryl Reeve became coach for the 2010 season and Moore arrived a year later as the No. 1 pick out of Connecticut.
Since then the Lynx, whose roster consists of Moore and three other 2016 Olympic gold medalists on the star-studded USA squad in Brazil, have won three WNBA titles in the past five years and thanks to the native of suburban Atlanta, are still alive to make it four-out-of-six.
Moore was simply sensational here Sunday night in the Staples Center getting the defending champions to stave off elimination with an 85-79 gritty victory over the host Los Angeles Sparks and send the series back home to Minneapolis and the Target Center Thursday night for a decisive game five matchup for the second straight season.
A year ago the Lynx were unable to close out the Indiana Fever on the road in Game 4 and then went home to pick up their third title.
This time they remained alive on the efforts of Moore and her game-high 31 points, taking a final narrow lead late in the game and holding off the Sparks to the disappointment of the highly vocal crowd of 12,885 fans that included former Lakers great Kobe Bryant who were hoping to see Los Angeles gain its first title since 2002.
The win also for the moment deprived Sparks super star Candace Parker of her first WNBA crown and enabled Minnesota, who re-gained home court advantage, to become the first back-to-back champion since Los Angeles achieved the feat with that crown in 2001.
A fourth title would also match the former Houston Comets for the best trophy haul in the 20th anniversary season of the league that launched in 1997 with those Texans capturing the first of all their crowns consecutively before Los Angeles snapped the streak in 2001.
“Obviously, we needed every bit of what Maya did,” said, Reeve, a former La Salle star out of the Philadelphia suburb of Washington Township in southern New Jersey, who was one of the assistants to UConn’s Geno Auriemma on this past summer’s USA Olympic squad.
“It wasn’t easy. You know I remember more of the turnovers (6) than the 31 points,” Reeve quipped. “There were two big threes that were memorable for me.
“But Maya made – Maya just makes plays. I think that much like Nneka (Ogwumike) after Game 2 came back in Game 3 and wanted to be more persistent, I thought Maya was more persistent in trying to find opportunities to score.
“It was in a variety of ways,” Reeve observed. “It was in multiple possessions. She was perimeter, post, it was in transition. It was in hustle plays. It was executing some stuff out of timeouts. It was getting fouled at times. Obviously, it was huge.”
Moore’s stats for the night were reflective of Reeve’s description, with the 31 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, while also connecting on 9-of-17 shots from the field, including 2-of-4 three-pointers, and being nearly perfect from the line, making 11 of 12 free throws. She also blocked two shots.
The former Huskies standout and two-time consensus national collegiate player of the year was not at her best Friday night up the road at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center when Los Angeles roared from the start and dominated the Lynx, to the surprise of Reeve.
“I imagine Maya tomorrow will come back and play her ‘Maya’ game tomorrow because that’s what Maya does,” Reeve said at Saturday’s practice sessions reflecting on the rout and looking ahead to Sunday night.
Los Angeles coach Brian Agler, who has won the most games in professional women’s hoops in the United States, has won two previous titles with the Columbus Quest out of Ohio in the former American Basketball League, and with a dominating Seattle Storm group.
Moore’s play brings a comparison from him of a WNBA great of yesteryear who was part of that Houston dynasty.
“…They’re not the same type of player but she’s a lot like Cynthia Cooper from the standpoint that no matter what happens, they’re always on balance. They always have the ability to gather themselves and finish on balance.
"It doesn’t matter if she’s taking it to the rim or if she’s off the dribble. She’s good. And then she has the ability to get you in bad spots and draw fouls. She’s difficult to defend.”
Under the new WNBA playoff format, whose eight teams qualified without regard to conference affiliation with the East and West, the Lynx and Sparks were the 1-2 best teams all season with each having successes on each other’s home court.
That continued into the playoffs with Los Angeles stealing Game 1 in Minneapolis on Alana Beard’s buzzer-beater at the finish, the Lynx fighting back with a dominating performance the next time out, only to see the Sparks do likewise here in Game 3, before the Lynx picked up their playoff road win Sunday night.
How Game 5 goes could go a long way to determine whether this is the overall classic of those postseason encounters that have gained that acclaim.
“I have no idea what to expect,” said Reeve, noting that she has yet to correctly surmise how her team would perform. “I know what to wish for, but you have no idea. You have no idea. We’re just going to try to prepare our team and see what we can do.
“We each won on each other’s home court and that’s not easy to do, when you look at the home court and our fans, and you look at what exists here, it’s a tall challenge, so credit to both teams for being able to get that done, and then now it’s Game 5, which is what everybody was asking for, hoping for, and here we are.”
As for Moore’s self-assessment of her night, she said, “You have to be able to just mentally lock in and let things go. You know if you hold on to things too long, you don’t have time to focus on what you need to do on the next play, in the next few possessions.
“The strength of our team is something I try to lead is next play, next play and not get rattled.”
The key in this series has been rebounding and unlike Friday night, Minnesota was tenacious on the boards with a 41-25 advantage, including 14-8 on the offensive glass.
The Lynx took care of that area despite going without Janelle McCarville, who left Friday’s game with back spasms and did not play Sunday, while veteran Rebekah Brunson was limited by foul trouble, scoring just six points. Sylvia Fowles, despite getting four fouls, scored 10 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
Seimone Augustus, one of the other Olympians along with Fowles and veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen, hit timely shots from the outside and scored 12 points, and Whalen scored 13.
Los Angeles was able to stay competitive off its long-range attack. Former Maryland all-American Kristi Toliver hit 4-of-6 treys to help her total of 15 points while former Duke star Chelsea Gray off the bench sizzled making 4-of-5 treys on the way to a team-high 20 points, while Parker scored 14 and Ogwumike, the league MVP, had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Beard scored 11.
Assessing his Los Angeles squad, Agler thought the four-day gap until Thursday’s 8 p.m. tip on ESPN2 will be useful to take a learning experience from Sunday night’s performance.
“We were making things happen down the stretch. We were tied at one time,” he said. “The game was in the balance there with two or three minutes, so we had opportunities, it’s just the ability to play with poise down the stretch.
“Again, I couldn’t be more proud of how we competed. Now we’ve got to partner that with poise and execution.”