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Minnesota’s Valiant Comeback Provides Something To Build On In Game 2

MINNEAPOLIS – “Whose house? Our house!”

That was the resounding chorus echoing through Williams Arena as a greeting to the LA Sparks when they took the floor for Game 1 of these highly-anticipated WNBA Finals.

Despite Williams not being the venue where these two teams met during the regular season, it was clear from well before tip that Minnesota was going to have the energy of a fervent fanbase to feed off for the entirety of the matchup.

After both teams put their lack of pregame jitters on full display with a bevy of pregame dance routines and choreographed handshakes it was time for tip-off in only the second repeat Finals matchup in WNBA history. On paper this series was as even as it gets: All-Stars, Olympians, and MVPs littering both rosters, two coaches with WNBA titles on their resumes.

Then, before it felt the Lynx fans were able to finish their first “let’s go Lynx” chant of the evening the Sparks were up 9-0. A little over two minutes later at the 5:56 mark in the 1st quarter L.A. had expanded that lead to 17-2. Fast forward to Chelsea Gray hitting one of her two free throws at the 2:28 mark and the score read 28-2.

When the whistle finally did blow to signal the end of the first quarter, Minnesota and their fans could do nothing but look up at the scoreboard in amazement. They found themselves in a 32-11 hole just one quarter into a Finals rematch they had been anticipating and working towards all season.

2016 Finals MVP Candace Parker recorded nine points, five rebounds, and three assists, laying her very early claim on a second consecutive most valuable player award.

“I have no idea. I couldn’t give you a rhyme or reason it went the way [it did],” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said postgame. “Not to take anything away from L.A. but it was kind of on us. Turnovers that led to easy baskets for them. Defensive schemes broke down. They had layups. That’s all stuff that we have to correct. It’s not necessarily something that they schemed and came up with a game plan that they couldn’t defend.”

Augustus couldn’t have been more right about her assessment of the way the Lynx came out of the gate. With two minutes left in the quarter Minnesota hadn’t recorded a rebound or an assist. They were out shot five made field goals to 12 and looked to simply be moving at a slower pace than L.A.

“They got the upper hand in those first five minutes obviously, and then what happens there, you lose your focus and then defensively, we were terrible,” Head coach Cheryl Reeve said postgame. “So the combination was really, really bad. We kind of lost trust in what we were trying to get done.”

For almost every other team in the league that kind of start would have spelled a downtrodden next three quarters, but the Minnesota Lynx are far from just another team. This is a squad that has won three WNBA titles since 2011 and been in every all but one in that same time span.

Lindsay Whalen took command of the offense, Seimone Augustus found her outside shooting stroke, Sylvia Fowles saw the impressive post moves that earned  her 2017 WNBA MVP honors begin to work in the paint, and Maya Moore got back to doing Maya Moore things.

Minnesota outscored L.A. 22-11 in the second quarter and cut what was a 21-point deficit after the first ten minutes, into a ten-point hurdle going into the halftime break.

When asked postgame about what spurred the impassioned turnaround, Sylvia Fowles said, “Just being aware of what’s going on and knowing that this is the playoffs, and how we started out was unacceptable. Just being focused and staying poised is what was the difference.”

Still, against the reigning champs, with players the Nneka, Candace, and 2017 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard, patrolling the paint and its surrounding area a 10 point hole can feel more like 20.

The second half quickly morphed into the definition of end-to-end basketball, both teams putting the rock into the hands of their superstars and letting them get to work. Whenever Moore would knock down a contested jumper on one side of the floor Chelsea Gray or Odyssey Sims would answer with a carbon copy of that exact play. When the dust settled on quarter three Minnesota was unable to make a dent in the ten-point deficit they found themselves in heading into the half as the Sparks led 68-56.

“We’re professionals. We have to have some pride and everyone on this team does. It’s a 40-minute game and we just have to keep playing and keep chipping away,” Minnesota’s Jia Perkins said postgame.

Chip away they did, and as the fourth quarter inched closer to the final buzzer so did the Lynx to making this a game they could not only get back into, but win.

Augustus’ fearlessness with the ball in her hands started the scoring snowball effect, and suddenly proceedings were closer than anyone could have foreseen after quarter one.

Six became four, four became two, and then with 1:16 left in the fourth Sylvia Fowles drained a free throw to tie the game at 79 apiece.

Throughout the contest, even when Minnesota was down by 26 points to start the game, the Lynx’s fans were locked into the action, willing their team back into the mix. Now, with less than two minutes left until a winner would be decided in the all-important Finals Game 1, Minnesota had come storming all the way back. The noise inside Williams Arena reverberated to the outskirts of St. Paul.

The final minute of action played out like something reserved for the script from your favorite sports movie. Augustus canned a trey to put the Lynx up 82-81, Nneka answered with her patented spin and finish in the paint to tip the seesaw back over the L.A.’s side. Moore broke the back and forth buckets affair with a missed layup with 18.9 seconds left only to be redeemed by L.A.’s Essence Carson missing two free throws that would have made it a three-point game with less than 15 seconds on the clock.

Instead, Minnesota was left with 12.6 seconds to take the lead and officially overcome a 26-point deficit, which would be the largest margin in WNBA history, regular or postseason.

As they’ve done so many times before before, Lindsay Whalen raced up the floor, eyes fixated on a streaking Maya Moore to her right. Then seemingly in one, fluid motion, Whalen effortlessly tossed a perfect pocket pass for Maya to collect and finish for her 26th and 27th point on the evening.

The comeback was complete.

High fives, smiles, wails of unfiltered joy rung out on the floor, from the Minnesota bench, and throughout Williams Arena.

“It just shows our fight. If we didn’t think we had fight before, we definitely showed a lot of guts in the way we came out and fought after being down 26 points in the first quarter,” Augustus said. “Not even the first quarter – the first five minutes of the game. To be able to bounce back from that and lose by one, it says a lot about us. ”

The comeback was staggering and all-time great. Minnesota was not only on the verge of setting WNBA history, more importantly they were going to set the tone of the series by protecting homecourt in Game 1.

But then it was all erased with one flick of the wrist from L.A.’s Gray. The final two points of her career-high 27 came with two seconds on the clock as she did her best MJ impression, creating separation with a swift stepback and then draining the 18-footer.

“That particular play there at the end, she got a step on Seimone and ‘Mone got back into play,” Coach Reeve said when she was asked to analyze the final sequence. “Even Maya came over to contest, but we just weren’t close enough on the contest. It’s a player that that’s an easy shot for her; a hard shot to make obviously in that moment, but that’s the world that she lives in.”

Although the loss was deflating on so many level for the Lynx, they demonstrated the kind of character and resiliency that defines a true champion. They took the Sparks’ best punch, weathered the storm, and fought back to being within seconds of getting a win they had no business having.

“I’m happy with the way we responded. We gave ourselves a chance to win the game but there’s no question that the championship isn’t going to be won with that kind of stretch that we allowed in that first quarter,” Moore said postgame.

Going forward Minnesota will delve deep into what happened in that tepid 1st quarter, and make sure it does not happen in Game 2 or going forward. So much of a team’s success in these evenly matched series’ is how you start out of the gate, Minnesota didn’t get out of the starting blocks until after the 1st quarter had passed them by.

Still, this team has been here before. They understand that there’s a reason these games aren’t a one-and-done. A series is going to have its peaks and valleys, and most importantly it’s about recognizing what you did well and where you still have improve.

Maya Moore tallied 27 points. Sylvia Fowles went for 22 points and 13 rebounds, her eighth career double-double in WNBA Finals games – no other player has more than 5 such games. Seimone Augustus dropped 19 points and hit three of her four three point attempts in the game. The production was there it was just single play execution that eventually set the Lynx back in a 1-0 series hole. Small lapses must be corrected if Minnesota wants to halt the potential for a Sparks repeat.

Jia Perkins perhaps put it best when it comes to the Lynx’s mindset heading into Tuesday, “We have to win. We have to play like the next game is a must win. We have to leave everything on the court.”