MINNEAPOLIS — Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were the names you knew heading into the 2016 WNBA Finals, and they were the two that lead the Sparks to their first championship in 14 years. With 19.7 seconds left, Ogwumike found Parker for a cutting layup that gave the Sparks a 74-73 lead. With 3.1 seconds to go, and the Sparks down one, it was Ogwumike’s turn, as she grabbed an offensive rebound and put in the game-winner from the baseline. Parker, who took home Finals MVP honors finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, while Ogwumike finished with 12 points to go along with 12 boards herself.
Yet Parker and Ogwumike might not have even been in position to play heroines if it wasn’t for one of the most unheralded member’s of the Sparks squad: Chelsea Gray.
The second year guard was brought in from Connecticut on draft night in exchange for the rights to Jonquel Jones. As Sparks GM Penny Toler told WNBA.com on Thursday night, “Last year I thought we could have (won a championship), but when we didn’t I knew we weren’t far off. I knew I needed to bring a little more toughness…Chelsea Gray she can help Toliver out at the point. She was huge for us, those last 8-10 games in the regular season, and she carried it over to the playoffs.”
Gray averaged just 5.9 points per game this season, but over the Sparks’ last five outings, she increased that average to 17 a night. Her impressive play and increased confidence carried over to the playoffs, when she scored 8.8 points per game as one of L.A.’s two key reserves.
However, it was in Game 5–specifically a two minute, thirty-five second stretch at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth– where she really made her mark. For those few brief moments, the best player on the floor wasn’t Ogwumike, nor Parker. It was Chelsea Gray, the second-year guard from Duke.
It wasn’t because she was forcing turnovers, or drawing charges like you might expect from a somewhat unknown bench player. No, Gray was getting buckets. And plenty of them. She poured in 11 straight points for the Sparks, helping them keep pace when it looked like the Lynx were on the verge of one of their signature runs. She did it from all over the court as well, knocking down a three, hitting mid-range jumpers, and getting all the way to the rim for two.
Soaked in celebratory champagne, in the Sparks’ locker room following the game, Gray was concise when discussing those few brief minutes of glory. “My team needed me,” she said. “I was on the floor, coach kept me on the floor…He had faith and it paid off.”
It certainly did, as Gray’s final bucket, of both the stretch and the game, started an 11-4 run which helped L.A. take control heading down the stretch, and eventually put Parker and Ogwumike in position to save the day.