Detroit 83, Los Angeles 78
Worst to First: Shock Win WNBA Title
AUBURN HILLS, Mich., Sept. 16 (Ticker) -- In shocking fashion, Ruth Riley got the better of Lisa Leslie.
Detroit Shock found a way to stave off elimination.
Riley scored a career-high 27 points on 11-for-19 shooting and won the showdown of All-Star centers as she thoroughly outplayed Leslie, who managed 13 points on 5-for-19 shooting before fouling out in the final minute.
The 6-5 Riley was named Most Valuable Player. It was somewhat of a reprise of 2001, when she led Notre Dame to the national championship with the same sort of post play she displayed in this series.
"My best game ever, to be honest with you," Riley said. "I was able to come out and play the best basketball, at this point, that I'm able to play."
"It may have been her best offensive game of the season," Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said.
After the final buzzer, confetti fell from the rafters of The Palace of Auburn Hills and Riley triumphantly hoisted a sign that read, "2003 WNBA champions" as the crowd of 22,076 -- the largest in league history -- celebrated.
The Shock became the first team in American pro sports to go from having the worst record in the league to champions the following season.
"He gave us the wisdom that he had as a player, that we just have a lot of heart, we love to play together," Riley said. "We played so well and we just played hard."
"We have great leadership, great internal leadership, and our players, if you get to know them, they are outstanding people, and that's what makes great champions," Laimbeer added.
The Sparks did not go down without a fight. They erased a 14-point deficit in the first half and an 11-point deficit in the second half, opening a three-point lead with 3:40 left.
Never in the seven-year history of the WNBA has a team won the clincher on the road.
"I always thought we would 'three-peat.' I thought we would win it on the road," Leslie said. "That's the way I feel, that's the way my teammates feel. It's kind of like, wow, it wasn't our team, it wasn't our year."
Leslie made 1-for-2 free throws to provide a 73-70 lead, but the Sparks went scoreless for more than three minutes. Riley made a short jumper, then harassed Leslie into a miss at the other end with 1:10 left.
After Deanna Nolan's three-pointer gave Detroit the lead for good, Leslie missed a short banker and fouled out chasing the rebound.
"It was very difficult to watch the last minute or two from the bench," Leslie said.
That began a parade to the line by the Shock as rookie Cheryl Ford and Nolan each made 4-for-4 free throws to hold off a last-gasp effort by the Sparks.
Nolan scored 17 points, Swin Cash added 13, 12 rebounds and nine assists and Ford had 10 and 12 boards for the Shock, who won the last two games at home after dropping the opener in L.A.
Mwadi Mabika had 29 points and nine rebounds, DeLisha Milton scored 19 points and Tamecka Dixon added 14 for the Sparks, who were 0-4 on the road in the postseason.
"It won't be long before the L.A. Sparks are champions again," coach Michael Cooper promised.
Riley scored 10 of 12 points for Detroit early on as the Shock built a 23-9 lead. The Sparks responded with nine consecutive points and eventually took a 31-30 lead on a three-pointer by Nikki Teasley with 4:26 left in the first half.
"We knew that shot was going to be there for (Riley)," Milton said. "We were just banking on their inexperience."
Detroit regrouped for a 42-37 halftime lead and widened it to 56-45 on a tournaround jumper by Riley with 15:11 to play. Mabika fueled a rally, and a jumper by Milton gave LA a 70-68 lead with 5:07 remaining. Riley's jumper tied it before Mabika scored inside.