Los Angeles, CA (Sports Network with additional reporting by Full Court's Lee Michaelson) - Nneka Ogwumike had 25 points and 11 rebounds as the Los Angeles Sparks took an 85-84 win over the Minnesota Lynx in a battle between the top two teams in the Western Conference.
Kristi Toliver scored 19 points while Jantel Lavender came off the bench for 15 points for the Sparks, who have already locked up the second seed in the Western Conference.
The Sparks needed all Ogwumike and her teammates had to offer after Sparks' star Candace Parker was ejected barely three minutes into the third quarter of a game that saw plenty of bodies flying on both ends of the court. Parker had dominated in the first two periods, her 14 points, plus eight boards and four assists, making her the only double-digit scorer in the first half for either side. But though she picked up two more rebounds in the early minutes of the third quarter to finish with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double despite her early exit, aggressive and physical Lynx double and triple teams held her scoreless in the opening minutes of the period. Referee Tommy Nunez was quick with the whistle when Parker vehemently protested uncalled contact by two Lynx players she felt interfered with her completion of a short jumper at the 6:58 mark of the third, then followed that up with a second technical when Parker questioned the call. Parker quickly sprinted off the court, high-fiving teammates and fans as she headed to the locker room for the remainder
The Sparks had put together an 8-2 run behind four consecutive layups from Ogwumike to open the third quarter quarter, holding the Lynx scoreless from the field for the first three minutes of the period, and were leading by 10 (43-33) when Parker was ejected. The Lynx' Seimone Augustus quickly shaved that edge to single digits, nailing both free throws on Parker's technicals, then following that up with one of a pair from the charity stripe when Toliver fouled her on the next possession.
But the Sparks proved resilient, apparently drawing momentum from both the response of the crowd, who were drawn back into the game by the incident, loudly (and colorfully) voicing their disagreement with both Parker's ejection and many subsequent calls and noncalls and remaining in the arena even after the victory to boo the refs until they disappeared into the tunnel, surrounded by security guards. A steal by Lindsay Harding and a pair of jumpers, plus penalty points, by Ogwumike and Lavender quickly restored the L.A. lead to 11 (48-37) by the midpoint of the third period, and despite another technical (this one for a violation of the defensive three-second rule) the Sparks still clung to an eight-point lead (59-51) as the game entered its final quarter.
The Lynx capitalized on a string of Sparks' turnovers, opening the fourth period on a 10-2 run to tie the score at 61 apiece two minutes into the quarter, and from there, the two teams exchanged blow for blow into the final seconds. The Sparks led by four with 22.1 seconds to play after Ogwumike put in a layup, but Lindsey Whalen countered with a layup for the Lynx.
After Toliver hit just one of two free throws, the Lynx had a chance to tie the game, but Janel McCarville's 3-point attempt missed and Jenna O'Hea hit another free throw to make it a four-point game.
Speaking of free throws, if Parker's intent in "conferring" with the refs had been to raise their awareness of the amount of uncalled contact, she achieved her purpose: Though plenty continued to be missed, the officals, who had called just 14 personal fouls in the first half (eight against the Lynx and six against the Sparks) for a combined total of 13 trips to the line, had by game' end assessed a total of 39 personals, sending Minnesota to the charity stripe 20 times, where the garnered 16 points, while LA put up 31 attempts at the foul line, connecting on 22 of them.
But though Los Angeles got the better of the battle at the foul line, another foul -- this one a technical against head coach Carol Ross with just 1.2 seconds left -- very nearly deprived them of the victory or at the very least sent the game to extra minutes. Whalen knocked down a 19-footer with 1.2 seconds left, but Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve questioned the call on the floor that had ruled the shot a 2-pointer. As the officials headed to the monitor to review the call, both coaches remonstrated with the refs, but Ross' objections bought her the "T." That could have proved costly had the officials overruled their original call and ruled Whalen's shot a 3-pointer, as Augustus put in the technical free throw, which would have tied the score with less than two ticks left on the clock. But in the end, the call on the floor was upheld, leaving the Sparks up 85-84, and Los Angeles was able to kill off the rest of the clock.
Augustus led the Lynx with 23 points and Maya Moore gave 17 points for the Lynx, who have clinched the top spot in the Western Conference. Thursday night's win split the regular-season series between the two teams at two games apiece, with each team holding serve on its home court.
Both teams have one game left in the regular season. The Sparks will take on third-place Phoenix in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs, while Minnesota will reprise last year's opening-round meeting with the fourth-place Seattle Storm.