MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In a championship series filled with stars, Alana Beard sometimes can get lost with so much attention on Minnesota’s four Olympians and the two MVPs in Los Angeles.
That’s exactly what happened in the closing moments of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, and Beard hit a jumper from the baseline just before time expired to lift the Sparks to a 78-76 victory over the defending champion Lynx.
With the defense collapsing on Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in the paint, Beard found herself all alone in the corner. She took the pass from Chelsea Gray and knocked down jumper with Maya Moore’s in her face.
As the ball splashed through, Moore put her head in her hands, and the Sparks celebrated a thrilling victory, their second on Minnesota’s court this season.
“You may not recognize the importance of her statistically for us a lot of times,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “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.”
Kristi Toliver scored 19 points to lead Los Angeles and Parker had 14 points and nine rebounds in her finals debut. League MVP Ogwumike added 19 points for the Sparks in the opener of the best-of-five series.
Sylvia Fowles had 18 points and 13 rebounds and Lindsay Whalen scored 18 points for top-seeded Minnesota. Moore scored all 18 of her points in the second half to move into first place on the WNBA’s career finals scoring list, but the Lynx committed 16 turnovers and got caught scrambling on the final possession of the game.
“I think we were more worried about not letting anyone get to the hole,” Fowles said. “I’m not sure exactly what happened on that last play to make her get wide open. But we learned from this.”
There was a time not too long ago when Beard’s name belonged on the marquee with players Parker and Ogwumike or Lynx stars Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. She was the national player of the year at Duke, the No. 2 overall pick by the Washington Mystics in 2004 and a four-time All-Star before injuries set her back.
She re-emerged in Los Angeles as a defensive specialist, but she took center stage in Game 1. Before she hit the game-winner, Beard also had a spectacular block of a shot by Whalen and then a steal off an inbounds to set up Ogwumike’s bucket for a 76-72 lead.
Moore scored on a coast-to-coast layup to tie the score at 76 with 24.7 seconds to play, but she helped aggressively on Gray’s drive on the other end, leaving Beard open for just her second bucket of the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hit a game-winner,” Beard said quietly. “So it’s pretty cool. Pretty cool.”
NEW LOOK: In years past these two teams never could have met in the finals because both are in the Western Conference. But the league changed its playoff format this year and seeded all of the teams based on record, not geography. The result in the first year could not have been better for the league with the top two teams throughout the season meeting.
“I don’t think it’s a fluke that we’re here now in the finals,” Fowles said. “I’m loving this new format.”
PARKER’S DEBUT: Parker has been one of the league’s brightest stars for years, but has never been able to reach the league’s biggest stage. She hit 5 of 12 shots and had three assists.
“At first obviously there’s some nerves, but you kind of get lost in the game and just trying to execute,” Parker said. “We had to take it possession by possession because you never know what’s going to happen.”
MOORE’S MARK: The Minnesota star was 0 for 4 in the first half, but made 7 of 10 shots in the final two quarters to move past Diana Taurasi for first place on the WNBA’s career scoring list for the finals. She set the mark with 5:20 to play after hitting a jump shot and converting the three-point play.
TOP 20: The WNBA hosted more than a dozen members of the top 20 players in league history for a halftime ceremony. Each player was presented with a ring to commemorate it. Whalen, Moore, Parker and Augustus all participated in the ceremony, and the league extended the length of halftime to allow them to receive their rings and then get back to the locker room to meet with coaches and teammates.
UP NEXT: Game 2 is on Tuesday in Minneapolis.