Sparks crackling derails Lynx season opener

MINNEAPOLIS – Chelsea Gray's disputed off-balance shot in the lane to the ring gave the Los Angeles Sparks a 77-76 victory over the Minnesota Lynx in their first game of the season on Sunday, an intense rematch of the WNBA finals last year.

Lindsay Whalen had 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter for the Lynx, including a pair of free throws with 5.8 seconds left. Gray, who finished with 18 points and eight badists, dribbled in traffic at the other end after a timeout and returned some money to Sparks for losing the title last fall.

Odyssey Sims led the Sparks with 21 points, Nneka Ogwumike added 19 points and nine rebounds, and Essence Carson had 10 points. Los Angeles scored just 3 of 18 from the 3-point range.

Sylvia Fowles had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Rebekkah Brunson threw in 15 points, and Maya Moore had only 11 points in 4 of 14 shots for Lynx. They had an amazing number of 24 turnovers that became 23 points for the Sparks.

The Sparks could not have expected much more production without star Candace Parker, who did not make the trip due to what was announced as a back injury. The Russian center Maria Vadeeva, a key acquisition of the off-season, has not yet joined the team. Jantel Lavender, another important veteran, has not finished with his overseas club either.

The Sparks took control after a three-point deficit at halftime, and a backdoor rebound at the end of the third period from Ogwumike to Riquna Williams produced a layup for Los Angeles' biggest advantage at 53 -43. Gray threw himself into the pull-up in the paint shot after a couple of free throws from Whalen to give the Sparks a 57-49 lead in the fourth quarter.

The Lynx was not going back, of course.

They got angry when Fowles was punched an offensive foul on the post, with an agitated Whalen who gave a bad to the official Tiffany Bird. A few minutes later, after Fowles reduced the lead to 59-53 with a layup, Sparks' newcomer Cappie Pondexter got into a shouting match with Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve during the break in action. They were given a double technique, like Whalen and Sims.

Fowles helped keep the Lynx rolling, converting another contact tray into traffic in a three-point play and a 68-65 lead as he entered the final stretch. Ogwumike scored a three pointer for a 71-68 lead, and turned Brunson's turnover into a plate in transition and a five-point lead with 2:08 to play.

Fowles hit two offensive shots with 56 seconds left to lead the Lynx to 73-72, and Sims responded with a long jumper. Whalen came back with a couple of free throws, and Fowles grabbed the rebound from a foul by the Sparks at the other end to establish the final possession.

In the last two years, the Sparks and Lynx divided their 16 matches, with five wins each in the playoffs and three wins each in the regular season.

Although the Sparks resented that the WNBA would schedule them to open in Minnesota, forcing them to see rival Lynx celebrate the title once again, there was no better way for the league to launch its 22nd season with this rematch of the last two finals that lasted the five complete games.

Matchmaking was possible in 2016 when the WNBA switched to a postseason format without a conference, and the Sparks won on the local Minnesota pitch that year. Last fall, Lynx avenged that crushing defeat by defeating Los Angeles at Williams Arena, where Whalen played his college games. The newly-appointed coach at her alma mater, Whalen has started her fifteenth season in the league with only one commitment to play at least this year.

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