- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The moment that Candace Parker banked in that off-balance 3-pointer with 1 minute, 31 seconds to go, this was guaranteed to be an agony or ecstasy ending for the Los Angeles Sparks.
And the moment Parker walked off the court with her jersey over her face, you had the answer.
The Minnesota Lynx headed home Sunday night to prepare for the WNBA Finals after an 80-79 victory over the Sparks at the Staples Center, sealed when Monica Wright hit an unguarded 3-pointer from the right corner with 1:14 left.
The Sparks players and coaches, meanwhile, went home to sort through their disappointment, regret and a litany of missed opportunities -- including a disjointed final play with 6 seconds on the clock that didn't include getting Parker a touch -- that left them barely short of stretching this series and their season to a third game.
The Sparks considered themselves a championship team. But they will not play for a championship. This is the kind of loss that sticks. And it will stick to no one more vehemently than Parker.
She finished with 33 points and 15 rebounds, joining Lisa Leslie as the only players in WNBA history to post those kinds of numbers in a playoff game. Parker dished five assists and blocked four shots. She played every minute of the game, leading her team from a 12-point deficit to a 13-point lead. She banked in the aforementioned 3-pointer with 1:31 to play from 30 feet to put the Sparks up 79-77.
But as the Lynx celebrated their Western Conference title and Parker came away empty-handed, she went straight to her mother, Sara, a nod to the unmistakable need for some comfort after what is the most bitter pill of her professional career.
Parker might be the WNBA's best player, but she doesn't yet have a title five years into what has been a stop-and-start career.
"I really wanted this, this championship," Parker said. "From the day we all got together, we had a championship on our mind and on our hearts. It hurt after we lost because I think that this is a championship team.
"But the ball didn't fall our way."
After getting worked in the first game of this series in Minnesota, Los Angeles came back strong at home and put itself in position to win.
"Our rebounding was better from the last game, I think we ran," Parker said. "But in the end, I think it came down to a rebound -- which we didn't get -- closing out on a long shooter there are a number of things we can look at. Obviously, this is disappointing to say the least. I really felt like we were going to win this game."
It seems a little unbelievable that Parker wouldn't get a touch on the final play. Ross called a quick timeout after Kristi Toliver grabbed an offensive rebound off a Wright miss and was headed down the floor.
Ross said she drew up a play that would have Beard, who finished with 15 points, driving to the basket along the baseline, with Parker setting the screen and then following to the rim for a putback. The other option was a pick-and-roll from Beard to Parker.
But Parker never got the opportunity. Beard was forced deep into the corner and trapped by two Minnesota defenders. Her last shot bounced off the back side of the rim and away as the buzzer sounded.
"Either it wasn't a good play or it wasn't executed very well," Ross said. "You are so frustrated with every decision you make in a one-point [loss]. I will probably spend way too much time scrutinizing it."
That will be only one of the Sparks' great regrets.
They reeled off 17 unanswered points to put Minnesota down by 13 after a great third quarter. But Maya Moore shook loose L.A.'s 2-3 zone and a couple of big 3-pointers, and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve put Rebekkah Brunson back on the floor to hit the glass, despite four fouls.
Seimone Augustus, who led Minnesota with 21 points, followed by Moore with 20, can empathize with Parker. Augustus waited six years for her first WNBA title last year.
"The best is yet to come for her and it looks like it's going to be soon," Augustus said of her Olympic teammate. "She looks amazing and their team has come a long way maybe, possibly, hopefully years from now she'll get one. I've been there before and she has to stay focused. Every year she's come back better. We needed a team effort to stop her. Obviously, we didn't stop her. But we created tough situations for her."
The only person after the game who might have felt worse than Parker was Ross.
"Over the course of a very long season, Candace was excellent so many times," Ross said. "Her expectations for herself are much higher than any coach could have for her. She has tattooed on her wrist 'From whom much is given, much is expected.' Unfortunately for her, I expect her to be almost perfect because she's so talented, so good and she wants to win. She's got a warrior's mindset.
"I'm disappointed for her that I couldn't help her and the rest of the team get what they wanted. That's what I'll tell her tomorrow, that I'm sorry I couldn't do more, couldn't help her more. Because she certainly helped us."
Candace Parker did everything she could to push Minnesota to a third game. But instead of playing for her first WNBA title, the Lynx are still on their quest for a second straight.