LONG BEACH, Calif. — Nneka Ogwumike was presented her MVP award by WNBA president Lisa Borders before Wednesday's playoff semifinal opener with Chicago. She smiled and posed for a few photos, but she didn't get a really good look at the trophy until she walked into the Sparks' locker room after the game and saw it sitting there.
By that point, she'd put on a fantastic display as to why she won it. Ogwumike and the No. 2 seed Sparks went to their strength in a 95-75 victory against Chicago: They dominated the post.
Ogwumike had 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. Candace Parker had 30 points, nine rebounds and three assists. And Jantel Lavender came off the bench to add 12 points and four rebounds.
Combined, they made 28 of 37 shots: 75.7 percent. Somebody needed to check the nets for burn marks.
Especially against a team missing last year's MVP, 6-foot-5 forward/guard Elene Delle Donne (out with a thumb injury), the Sparks knew this game was about relentlessly wielding the cudgel they have.
"We understood that we couldn't get away from what we do well," Ogwumike said. "That's kind of what happened after the Olympic break. We lost ourselves a bit, and then we regrouped.
"Which is why I think this 12-day break [before the playoffs] was beneficial for us, because we handled it differently than the Olympic break. We were able to dissect their defense and figure out how we could score against it."
Despite 10 days off and being displaced to a nearby hockey arena, Minnesota never missed a step in its playoff opener. Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen helped the Lynx cruise past Phoenix in Game 1.
We're down to four teams. Los Angeles and Minnesota both won Wednesday to take 1-0 leads in the WNBA semifinals.
So far, the regular season hasn't been much of an indicator of what's to come in the playoffs. Can eighth-seeded Phoenix pull another upset? Will Chicago continue to win without its star?
So, just like Minnesota pounded Phoenix in the first game of their semifinal Wednesday in St. Paul (which will be the Lynx's home next year, as Target Center is being renovated), the Sparks also clobbered their foe in an alternate gym. The Walter Pyramid, on the campus of Long Beach State, was used because there was a facility conflict with Staples Center. The Sparks will return to Staples for Game 2 against Chicago on Friday (ESPNews, 10 p.m. ET).
Parker added that she thought there was a silver lining in the Sparks' struggles in late August and September, when they went 5-5 to close the regular season. They realized they were resilient, Parker said, and that they could bounce back when things didn't go well.
It had been easy for the Sparks to say they were a cohesive unit during their 21-3 run before the Rio de Janeiro Games. But they really proved that to themselves with how they stuck together during some hard times.
"It takes battling through adversity to win a championship," Parker said. "That's what I took from it. That we have to continue to play and trust the process."
Parker has won the MVP award twice: in her rookie season of 2008, and in 2013. Ogwumike, who like Parker was a No. 1 draft pick, came to the Sparks in 2012 and made a point of studying everything that Parker did.
"There's so much to learn from her," Ogwumike said. "It's fun to see where our chemistry is now."
Parker returned the compliment, saying she is also learning plenty from Ogwumike.
"I think it's been an amazing journey for me to sit back and watch Nneka develop the way she has," Parker said. "She's always played with the same amount of energy, selflessness and passion since she got to L.A.
"It takes work and energy to go in there with four people rebounding and come out with the rebound."
But that's something Ogwumike seems to do all the time. Even when you're sure she's so outnumbered that she can't possibly be the one who rebounds the ball, she somehow still gets it.
And that relentless energy was evident all night Wednesday, but encapsulated by one particular third-quarter tour-de-force. Ogwumike blocked Jessica Breland's shot at the top of the key, chased down the ball, and raced down the court for a layup.
"It's been an amazing journey for me to sit back and watch Nneka develop the way she has. She's always played with the same amount of energy, selflessness and passion since she got to L.A."
Candace Parker on teammate Nneka Ogwumike
It was among the Sparks' plays that got Magic Johnson, one of the team's owners, out of his seat and on his feet applauding.
"I think that was probably the epitome of how I've been playing," Ogwumike said when asked about that sequence.
Why was she still diving for loose balls and making hustle plays even late in the game when the outcome was essentially decided? Ogwumike said she doesn't think you can just turn effort off and on based on the score of the game. Her dial is set at "on" all the time.
As for the MVP trophy, she said it was heavier than she expected. And the magnitude of it is still setting in for Ogwumike.
"It's been amazing, but I'm not sure it's really hit me yet," she said. "It will maybe after the season. It's pretty cool."
Where is the trophy going to be displayed?
"It's going to my mom," Ogwumike said, laughing. "She's already claimed it."
The Sparks, though, stressed that they fully realize they have not yet claimed their spot in the WNBA Finals, despite such a resounding victory. They still have to win two more games, and the Sky are going to do whatever they can to make it harder on Ogwumike and Parker.
Good luck with that. Sparks coach Brian Agler was especially proud of how Wednesday exemplified the effort that Ogwumike has shown every game and practice this season.
"The thing that's just so eye-opening to me is how efficient she is," he said. "She's worked on her game, and she plays so hard, so competitive. I've coached a lot of really good players. And the one characteristic I would say you need if you want to be an MVP player is that they play with such great intensity, and focus. And they're hungry to have success. We've seen it all year long with her."