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Candace Parker leads Sparks to WNBA championship, wins first title ‘for Pat’

In the same year Parker was left off of the Olympic team and lost her college coach, she stepped up in Game 5 and won

When Candace Parker collapsed on the hardwood floor of the Target Center on Thursday night, don’t tell me your stomach didn’t drop. It’s OK to admit that you, too, felt your heart clench as you watched the Los Angeles Sparks forward sob on the court while her teammate Kristi Toliver embraced her and told her she earned this championship.

And when Parker got up, turned around to do her postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe and told Rowe that this championship — her first title — was for her beloved mentor and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who died of early onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type,” on June 28, it’s OK to admit that you were on the verge of tears.

“This is for Pat,” Parker said as tears rolled down her face, “this is for Pat.”

You couldn’t write a more gripping ending for the 20th year of the WNBA.

In little more than a year, Parker has had some of the most gut-wrenching knockdowns — she and her Sparks teammates were eliminated from the WNBA playoffs by the Minnesota Lynx, 2-1, in the semifinals; the two-time WNBA MVP was snubbed by the USA Basketball committee and left off of the 12-woman roster for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro; and she lost Summitt.

That she was able to get up time and time again and pull out a 28-point, 12-rebound and four-steal Game 5 performance is a testament to what she learned from the Hall of Fame coach.

“You can’t control if shots go in or shots don’t, but what you can control is defense and rebounding,” Parker said.

Certainly, a player who has gone through as much professional and personal loss as Parker has deserves a title, but make no mistake about it, she fought for and earned this championship. She suffered a number of defeats along the way, but she would not allow herself to be defeated.

No team led by double digits, featured 24 lead changes and 11 ties. The victory — a 77-76 nail-bitter that came down to the final 3.1 seconds — came down to an “if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed-try-try-again” effort for the Sparks to win the game in front of a 19,423 sellout crowd in Minneapolis.

Nneka Ogwumike, who was the Sparks’ second leading scorer, watched as guard Chelsea Gray put up a fadeaway and it rattled off the rim. Three Lynx defenders boxed out Parker, leaving Ogwumike to jump up to the ball’s highest point and collect her 11th rebound. She then tried to lay it in, but was rejected in the low post by Sylvia Fowles.

Ogwumike then rebounded the block on her left foot, and in the same sequence shot an off-balance fadeaway. Nothing but net.

When it came down to why Ogwumike and her teammates worked so hard to earn Los Angeles its first championship since 2002, it all came back to their leader.

“[Parker has] been through so much,” she told Rowe in the postgame interview. “She’s probably the most misunderstood person in the league. I told her I wanted her to get one.”

Ogwumike was the central figure in a controversial non-review with both teams tied at 71 apiece, after it appeared her jumper came after the shot clock expired. A review was signaled for by the officials, but basket was not looked at, and immediately after the score in question, the Lynx’s Seimone Augustus responded to Ogwumike’s jumper with one of her own. That eliminated Minnesota’s window to review the prior play.

“It’s not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong, OK? These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league. Because it is not fair to these great players that we have,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said.

With 3:06 left, the Sparks had what appeared to be a comfortable 71-63 lead. Then Lynx forward Maya Moore, who had 23 points and 11 assists, scored from downtown and Lindsay Whalen hit a tough fast-break layup several plays later to knot it up at 71.

Twelve seconds before Ogwumike hit the game-winner, Moore backed down Alana Beard on the baseline, made Beard fall on a spin move, and found the bottom of the net after she pulled up. The Lynx led, 76-75, with 15 seconds remaining at that point.

Rebekkah Brunson split a pair of free throws with 23.4 seconds, giving Minnesota a 74-73 lead. Ogwumike found Parker by herself for an easy layup in response.

Parker cried once more at the postgame news conference, when Sparks coach Brian Agler began the session by pulling out his phone and playing the Tennessee fight song Rocky Top.

The two-time NCAA champion, former 2008 No. 1 pick, WNBA Rookie of the Year and two-time Olympic gold medalist reached over and enveloped him in a hug. Friday night, after her first WNBA Finals, Parker can now add WNBA champion to her illustrious career.

“I’ve never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard,” Agler said, “and I’ve never been around anyone I’m more happy for than Candace.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.