In the latest dramatic twist in the WNBA playoff race, Cheyenne Parker made a last-second layup on Friday night to give the Atlanta Dream a huge 88-86 win over the Los Angeles Sparks in a game that had major implications for both teams.
After Katie Lou Samuelson had tied the game with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, the Dream had the ball with 3.2 seconds remaining. Everyone's first thought was that head coach Tanisha Wright would draw up a play for No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard, who was having one of the best games of her rookie season. Instead, Wright called upon veteran big Cheyenne Parker.
Catching the ball along the baseline, Parker got the angle on Nneka Ogwumike and carved out some space under the basket, where she was able to bank in a lefty layup with 0.3 seconds to play. Gateway Center Arena erupted, and Parker's teammates mobbed her as they joined in on the celebration.
Ogwumike actually made a ridiculous fadeaway down on the other end, but it came well after the clock had expired. With that, the Dream had secured a second straight win and improved to 14-18. This was just the turnaround the team needed after a recent four-game losing streak, and they now sit all alone in seventh place.
With four games remaining, they are a full game ahead of the ninth-place Phoenix Mercury and own the tiebreaker between the two teams, which means their lead is essentially two games. Their work isn't done yet, but the Dream took a big step towards the playoffs with their win on Friday.
While Parker took them home, they were in position to win thanks to Howard. The presumptive Rookie of the Year put together another stellar performance, finishing with 28 points, four rebounds and three assists on a highly efficient 7 of 12 from the field. Atlanta was also plus-19 with Howard on the floor in a two-point win; single-game plus-minus doesn't always tell the whole story, but it did in this game.
Howard made back-to-back 3s to open the scoring for the Dream and poured in 14 points in the first quarter alone to help the team open up an early double-digit lead. She got into foul trouble in the second quarter, however, and had to head to the bench with 3:44 remaining in the half and the Dream up by 13. The Sparks quickly went on a 13-2 run to get back in the game.
The second half was a similar story. Howard was relentless in the third quarter, attacking the basket time and again to put the Sparks under serious pressure. She helped the Dream get into the bonus early and made seven free throws of her own in the frame to help rebuild a double-digit lead heading into the fourth. By the time she checked back in the game in the fourth quarter, the Sparks had cut the deficit back down to three, and were competitive the rest of the way.
The Sparks were not able to get the win, however, and are now in serious trouble. They have lost six straight games for their longest losing streak of the year, and have fallen all the way to 11th place at 12-20. With just four games remaining they are 1.5 games behind the New York Liberty and lost the tiebreaker between the two teams earlier this week when they blew a 20-point lead.
If things weren't bad enough, their next three games are against the Sun, Mystics and Mystics again. Though still mathematically alive, this loss likely ended the Sparks' hopes of making the playoffs. Barring some sort of remarkable turnaround, they are set to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time in franchise history and first time since 1997 and 1998, the league's first two seasons.