October 2016 marked the return of a WNBA championship to Los Angeles, courtesy of Candace Parker and a few FIBA female athletes.
What started with Alana Beard’s Game 1 buzzer beater ended with a 77-76 victory on the same floor in a do-or-die Game 5, as the Sparks took the 2016 WNBA Finals three games to two over the reigning champions, the Minnesota Lynx.
Before the game, Kristi Toliver, who finsihed with 8 points, told WNBA.com, “We put in a lot of work this season and we just want to reap the benefits.” Reap the benefits they did, claiming the Sparks’ third ever championship, and their first since back in 2002.
Unsung hero and FIBA player, Jelena Dubljevic,
is smart forward who won’t back down from anything and breathes fire whenever she is on the floor. Dubljevic is often the centrepiece in any European game – whether it is with Galatasaray in EuroLeague Women, or for Montenegro. There have been some questions about her durability after some back injuries, but she seems to have shrugged that off now. She is someone who can score inside because of her mobility and touch. She could also be fun to watch because of her physicality and aggression which balances up with her skills. She is not the biggest forward by any means, but can pack a mean punch.
Our second FIBA spotlight is on Evgenia Belyakova. We have loved Belyakova ever since Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje gave her the platform to grow as a player in their post four-time EuroLeague Women winning era when they had to subsequently slash the budget – the Russian guard has stepped up. She has since moved on and is currently with UMMC Ekaterinburg, having re-routed via Dynamo Kursk. She is playing almost 19 minutes per game for the juggernauts in EuroLeague Women on a roster which is as long as it gets – something that speaks volumes about her capabilities. Her three-point shooting is outstanding as it is all about the shots she smartly turns down, as well as those she makes. She is around 47 percent at the moment and don’t ever think she is only a shooter because her displays for the Russia national team dispel that myth. She is gold dust for me – a great shooter but one who doesn’t feel compelled to shoot and sees the bigger picture at critical moments.
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It was a poetic victory, as the Sparks, one of the WNBA’s original teams, claimed the title in the league’s historic 20th season. In the process, the Sparks also prevented the Lynx from becoming the first team to repeat as champions since they accomplished the feat back in 2001-02.
The fact that the Sparks and Lynx–the league’s two best teams all season long–were playing for the championship and not in the Western Conference Finals is due to the revamped postseason format, in which the top eight teams, regardless of conference, made the playoffs. The format faced its share of criticism, but in the end was vindicated by providing one of the best Finals the league has seen.
This Finals was, of course, the first for Candace Parker, as the two-time MVP finally got the piece of hardware that has been escaping her for nearly a decade. Before the series, Parker said, “My rookie season I thought I would be in this situation at least four of five times by now.” It didn’t quite pan out that way, but Parker took advantage of her long-awaited opportunity.
So too did her MVP teammate Nneka Ogwumike, who, although she didn’t have to wait quite as long as Parker, was also participating in her first Finals. The victory in Game 5 makes Ogwumike just the seventh player in league history to win an MVP Award and a championship in the same season.
“It’s been a long journey. We haven’t done anything yet,” Candace Parker told reporters before the series. “We haven’t accomplished our goal,”
But now, late in October, on a chilly night in Minneapolis, the journey is complete; the goal has been accomplished. Candace Parker is a WNBA champion, and so too are the Los Angeles Sparks.
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