With 27 seconds left in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals Maya Moore found herself with the ball in her hands and the Lynx down two.
As the Target Center rose to its feet, Moore turned the corner on Nneka Ogwumike, accelerating around her with ease she arrived unabated at rim and tucked in the two-hand layup. Pandemonium in Minneapolis.
A game that had seen lead changes for what felt like every minute since the first whistle blew was finally even with only seconds standing in between the present and the inevitable pressure of overtime. But, the Sparks would still have one more possession to try and steal Game 1 on the road.
Sparks head coach Brian Agler called timeout and drew up what he hoped would be the kind of play coaches dream of, the game-winning kind of play. Out of the timeout, Chelsea Gray received the ball on the inbounds, and waited at the top of the key as the clock ticked closer and closer to zero.
Finally, with eight seconds left and counting, Gray made her move. Nneka arrived to set a screen for Gray, and history began to unfold before our eyes. “Chelsea had the ball. I was screaming, ‘shoot it, shoot it,’ because I saw the time winding down,” said Candace Parker. Like Parker, the arena was getting restless. The Sparks bench was on their feet anticipating what was to come.
What came next was a calculated drive into the paint from Gray.
As soon as Gray’s feet touched the top of the key she opened her hips to dish the rock to a wide open Alana Beard in the corner. If Gray could get the ball to Beard she would have just enough time catch and heave up the 20 footer.
“Yeah, that wasn’t option 1, that was option 2. Option 1 was try to get Kristi a look, try to get some cutters to the rim, and it didn’t develop,” said Coach Agler postgame. “They did a good job of blowing that up, and so Chelsea just –who was very effective tonight, she did a great job of just penetrating in the gap. She looked like she was going to take it to the rim, but they really collapsed on her and she found Alana in the corner.”
“I was just watching the play, to be honest with you,” said Beard. “I knew what we were looking for. I saw that Minnesota did a great job of taking away the options, which was expected, and Chelsea kind of rejected the screen and drove and read the defense, and at one point, however many seconds left on the clock, you kind of have to take that shot, so I threw it up.”
Throw it up she did, and the result was something anyone who’s ever shot a basketball has played out in their minds time and time again.
At almost the exact time the buzzer sounded and 0.0 shown brightly on the shot clock, Beard’s heave hit nothing but net, as pure a jumper as you’d see in pregame warmups. The excitement, emotion, and exuberance for a Finals overtime game in the Target Center was, in one second, turned into deafening silence. Hands on heads replaced high fives. Beard had hit the third buzzer-beater in WNBA Finals history, and had just made sure the Sparks took the all-important Game 1 victory.
“We knew exactly what they were running. We were ready. We got caught over-helping, and they made a good pass. We didn’t get a deflection, and they knocked down a shot,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.
“I think we were more so worried about not letting anyone get to the hole. I’m not sure exactly what happened on that last play to make her get wide open,” said Sylvia Fowles postgame.
When asked if this was the biggest shot Beard’s ever hit she replied honestly, “Um, I don’t think I’ve ever hit a game winner, so it’s pretty cool. Pretty cool.”
Pretty cool is certainly one to describe it. Beard’s calm demeanor postgame echoes the way she took the last shot without hesitation, confidence bursting from behind the bright yellow Sparks jersey on her chest. Before that shot Beard had a grand total of two points. After it she only had four, but no one’s going to remember anything but that final second.
“Honestly I can’t be more happy for an individual than Alana Beard,” said coach Agler. “If you think about her, first of all, her first championship series, and all the injuries that she’s had to deal with throughout her career, and her staying with it, she may not — you may not recognize the importance of her statistically for us a lot of times, but her presence, her leadership, obviously how disruptive she can be defensively, and then for her to hit a shot like that, it was incredible. I’m really happy for her, big play.”
Because of Alana Beard and her last second shot the Sparks will enter Game 2 in Minnesota on Tuesday up 1-0. They have the momentum for now but won’t have much time to bask in the emotions of the shot as it’s back to the task at hand in 48 hours.
“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,” said Beard. This sentiment is true, the work is far from finished for the Sparks, but, if this is your first day on the job you’ve started off a pretty good foot.