Before the Lynx played Los Angeles on Sunday, coach Cheryl Reeve noted that WNBA games are often decided in the final five minutes. And lately, her team had been stumbling over its own feet, losing three of its past four games by five or fewer points.
"Those could be wins," Reeve said. "We're trying to get there. (It's) navigating that space. Who's going to step up, and who's going to do what?"
Several players answered the call Sunday in a 91-86 victory at Target Center, overpowering the Sparks with an incredible rally over the final 3 minutes, 38 seconds. The Lynx used a 17-0 run to roar back from an 11-point deficit, closing out a nostalgic anniversary weekend with their first home victory of the season.
On the night the team retired the No. 34 jersey of former center Sylvia Fowles, the current roster got the party started early. The Lynx trailed 83-72 when Rachel Banham hit a three-pointer to start the late dash.
Bridget Carleton made a three for an 84-83 lead with 1:10 to go, then after a Napheesa Collier steal, Carleton canned another three from deep in the corner to push the margin to four points. Collier led the Lynx with 24 points and added six assists, nine rebounds and three steals.
The Lynx (2-7) hit all eight of their free throws during the rally, finishing the game 24 of 25 from the line.
"We refused to lose," said guard Tiffany Mitchell, who scored six of her 17 points in the fourth quarter. "We came together, and it was like, 'We can't let this one slip away.'
"Our huddles were a lot tighter. We were looking each other right in the eyes. We felt that connection."
Reeve noted before the game that the Lynx were not communicating well on the court, leading to problems that sabotaged several of those close games. Sometimes, she said, the team lacked leadership, with no one stepping forward to guide it through those tense moments. Sometimes, the Lynx were just plain sloppy, making unforced mistakes that led to unhappy endings.
Those issues did not disappear altogether on Sunday. But this time, the Lynx subdued them when the game was on the line.
They were determined early, forging a nine-point lead in the first quarter. But the Sparks pushed back, outscoring the Lynx 11-4 over the final 2:58 to trim the Lynx lead to 22-20. The Lynx faltered again in the final minutes of the second quarter, losing a six-point lead and failing to get a shot off on the last possession to end the half in a 43-43 tie.
Things got worse in the third quarter. A 51-46 Lynx lead dissolved in a rash of mistakes during a 12-2 Los Angeles run, giving the Sparks their biggest lead of the game at five points. After the Lynx again failed to get a shot on the final possession, Los Angeles rode a 13-2 spurt in the fourth quarter to lead by 11.
"Defensively, we let the game get away from us in the fourth," Reeve said. "We kind of lost our way a little bit, then obviously, we found our way back."
Reeve said Collier spoke up forcefully during a timeout with 3:36 left, telling her team there was still time to finish strong. The Sparks committed four turnovers to aid the Lynx comeback, but the Lynx also made their own luck with sharp long-range shooting and by making all 12 of their free throws in the fourth quarter. The Lynx outscored the Sparks 19-3 over the final 3:38.
"We like how this feels," Mitchell said. "There are smiles, and everyone's happy. We don't want this to go away.''