Veteran Experience and a Hard-Won Title

For a team that’s been so businesslike about building a WNBA dynasty, a veteran, experienced group that has seen and done it all, been in every conceivable situation, the release of emotion from the Minnesota Lynx in the final minute at Williams Arena on Wednesday night was remarkable.

Head coach Cheryl Reeve tipped her head back to keep the tears from falling down her cheeks and took some deep breaths.

Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen embraced tightly as the bench players nudged each other as the seconds ticked off, anticipating the celebration that was about to come.

When the final buzzer sounded, the ball in Maya Moore’s so-capable hands, Moore tossed the ball high into the air and ran to the pile of crying, screaming Lynx players, who made WNBA history in a whole bunch of ways with their 85-76 win over the Los Angeles Sparks.

Four titles in seven years. Matching the Houston Comets for the most championships in league history. Rebekkah Brunson, lifted out of a funk in the last two games of the series, became the first player in WNBA history with WNBA championship rings, having won her first title back in 2005 when she played for the Sacramento Monarchs.

Sylvia Fowles, the WNBA’s MVP this season, added to her trophy collection by winning the WNBA Finals MVP trophy (becoming the first player since Lauren Jackson in 2010 to do it) with 17 points and a Finals-record 20 rebounds.

This championship run was hard for Minnesota in a way that some of their other titles haven’t been, nothing like the sweeps that earned them their first titles back in 2011 and 2013.

“Every time you do this, it just gets a little bit more special because it gets a little harder,” said Whalen. “You now it’s not easy, you know it’s something we try not to take for granted ever.”

This title was hard-won. Not only because the Los Angeles Sparks are perhaps the best second-best team in league history after failing in their own quest to win four WNBA titles, but because things just aren’t going to be easy for a team with four of the five oldest players in the league on their roster.

The Lynx trailed in this series 1-0 and 2-1 in losses that were less-than-inspiring for their slow starts and uneven play.

“They wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s incredibly draining, every night we play we get a team’s best effort,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. “It takes a toll on you. I give them so much credit for their fortitude.”

Whalen missed time late in the regular-season with a broken hand. Augustus had fluid drained from her knee just hours before Game 5. In a Game 3 loss to Los Angeles, one that put Minnesota on the brink of the season’s end without a title, the Lynx looked tired. Augustus and Whalen were scoreless. Brunson was not a factor on the boards. They looked their age.

But on Wednesday, the Lynx looked their experience.

They jumped out to a quick lead, weathered the Sparks inevitable comeback as Candace Parker’s buzzer-beater pulled L.A. back within two at the end of the first quarter. Minnesota rebuilt a 6-point halftime lead thanks to superior rebounding from Fowles and Brunson and the Sparks’ inability to connect on perimeter shots.

Minnesota pushed the lead, in front a sold-out crowd to 13 points in the third quarter and were up 12 with under two minutes to go, trying to burn time off the clock to claim their title, when L.A. charged one more time.

The Sparks went on a 9-0 run in 57 seconds, forced three turnovers in the backcourt with intense ball pressure and turned it into a nailbiter, pulling within 79-76 with 34.9 seconds to go.

But Moore, making her case as the winningest player in women’s basketball history, did what she does best. She fielded a pass deep in the backcourt, dribbled through the defense and hit an off-balance jumper in the lane to put Minnesota up by 5.

Sparks guard Odyssey Sims put up a short 3-pointer and Fowles – who remembered failing to secure the defensive rebound a year ago that led to Nneka Ogwumike’s put-back and a Sparks title – made sure that would not happen again. She got the rebound and sealed another championship.

“If I didn’t do anything else, I just wanted to make it my business to make sure I just go out there and rebound, and that was my downfall last year,” Fowles said. “(Last year) I fell on the court, that haunted me for a long time after Game 5 last year. I just wanted to come in and I wanted to show my presence, and if that was rebounding, then rebounding it was.”

Whalen said it was all about sticking together, as this core group has done now since 2011.

“We stuck together through thick and thin all season and in this game, thick and thin,” Whalen said. “There were some runs. They cut it, obviously, to three there with a couple of our turnovers at the end, but we didn’t panic.”

All five Minnesota starters finished in double figures. The Lynx looked like a team that refused to lose at home in a Game 5 for the second year in a row. It was going to be a tall order for Los Angeles, who failed to close out a series-clinching win at home for the second year in a row. The Sparks needed last-second heroics to do win a year ago. But they played from behind for too long in this game, unable to hit a big three and with Nneka Ogwumike in foul trouble, to make it happen again.

Moore was in elementary school when the Comets won four straight titles in the early days of the league. Her sense of the history made Wednesday night in Minneapolis was strong.

“You know, as a longtime WNBA fan since I was eight years old, I’ve been die hard, watching the Comets, some classic battles, New York, then Detroit had their run, watching the Storm, and then I get a chance to be a part of just an unbelievable group of players over these last few years,” Moore said. “It’s just hard to compare, obviously, because when times change and talent gets better and we have more opportunities and things now to take advantage of, but I don’t know if you’re going to get a more deep, committed, selfless group that we have right now.”

There are bonus moments to this title beyond the history.

Whalen won a title on the floor where she became a Minnesota legend as a college player, at Williams Arena.

Texas Tech teammates Jia Perkins and Plenette Pierson, each of whom have played 14 years in the league, won a WNBA Championship together. For the 35-year-old Perkins it was her first, and she was kneeling on the floor in tears during the celebration. Pierson, who said she will retire, wins her third after winning two with the Detroit Shock.

The next questions people will ask is how many more title runs do the Lynx have in them? Can they keep the core of this team together and continue to dominate the league the way they have done now for seven years?

Those questions are best saved for another day. The WNBA season ended in spectacular fashion for the second year in a row with a down-to-the-wire championship series between two star-laden, evenly matched teams. It ended with history.

“I know our players wanted this. They wanted to take their place next to the Comets, I know that,” Reeve said. “So now they have four.”

The Minnesota Lynx don’t yet have to think about how they might do it again, whether they might be able to make it five. At least until, maybe, tomorrow.