Title was a long time coming for Lynx
Franchise that once failed to reach the playoffs for six straight seasons is now a champ
ATLANTA -- Seimone Augustus knew the salt water would come. She'd held in so much over the years, persevered through disappointments, kept her head up during emotional and physical pain.
This season, as it became clear that things really were coming together for her Minnesota Lynx, Augustus sometimes let herself picture a perfect ending.
"Just envisioning it and imagining it while sitting around my house, I'd get teary-eyed," Augustus said before Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. "My mom always said, 'Never cry over basketball.' Because she always looked at it like recreation. I've told her, 'Mom, it's more than that.'
"It's my career. It's almost like my life -- this is what I eat, sleep, breathe."
And Friday, it was indeed what she cried about -- but they were the happiest tears she has ever shed.
The Lynx won the franchise's first WNBA title, finishing off a 3-0 sweep of Atlanta 73-67 at Philips Arena. Augustus and the Lynx are champions.
"It's like a weight lifted up off my shoulders," said Augustus, who had 16 points Friday and was named the Finals MVP. "After going through everything in college, and the struggles here, we got the big prize. We finally got the big prize!"
Yes, really, the Lynx won it all. The team that didn't make the playoffs for six consecutive years. The team that in 2009 had its coach bolt just days before the season started. The team that always seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the cherished warm weather for the hearts of Minnesota sports fans.
How many people were really going to stay inside during the precious summer months up north to watch basketball? Well, this year's Lynx team got a lot of them to do just that. The bandwagon expanded throughout a regular season in which Minnesota had the WNBA's best record at 27-7. It got bigger when the Lynx won their first playoff series in franchise history in the first round against San Antonio.
More folks jumped aboard when Minnesota swept two-time WNBA champion Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. And now, as Los Lynx are headed back to a celebration in Minneapolis, the whole state is invited to be a part of it.
Twenty years ago this month, the Twins beat the Braves for the World Series title. While the WNBA obviously is not in the same public-consciousness category as Major League Baseball, this Minnesota team's triumph over an Atlanta team still gives the state's citizens something to smile about.
And making it even sweeter is the fact that one of Minnesota's most popular female sports heroes was a big part of it.
"We stuck together, and I thought we had more will down the stretch," said Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen, the former Minnesota Golden Gophers star. "We had to finish it tonight. You can't give a team like Atlanta any hope."
The funny thing is, for many years, the Lynx didn't give their own fans much hope. A WNBA expansion franchise, the Lynx began play in 1999. Their highlight for the next decade was making the playoffs in 2003 and '04 but they lost both those first-round series.
Let's go back to 2004 for just a second. That was the magical college season for Whalen's Gophers, in which she returned from a broken wrist that threatened to end her senior season prematurely and led Minnesota all the way to the women's Final Four. Also making it that far for the first time in school history was LSU, led by then-sophomore Augustus.
Neither of them won the NCAA title, as both teams lost in the national semifinals -- Augustus' Lady Tigers to Tennessee and Whalen's Gophers to UConn. Then Whalen, to the great chagrin of those in her native state, was picked by Connecticut in the WNBA draft and left to play for the Sun. Had you asked most Minnesota fans then, they would have wanted the Lynx to trade the entire team to keep Whalen home.
"I went to the Finals twice and lost both times," Whalen said of defeats at the hands of Seattle in 2004 and Sacramento in 2005. "Now I know what it feels like on the other side. To do it with Minnesota is just unbelievable and to do it with this group of people."
Augustus would go on to two more Final Four appearances -- losing in the semifinals again in both -- before being the overall No. 1 draft pick by the Lynx in 2006. She was WNBA rookie of the year that season and has lived up to her promise as a pro. But she also went through physical struggles, losing most of the 2009 season to an ACL injury.
"My physical therapist kept telling me during rehab every day, 'Just try to gain a little bit, do a little something,'" Augustus said. "And then when I saw the moves that the team was making [going into the 2010 season], it made me push even harder to want to get back. Because I knew some great things were about to happen."
Coach Don Zierden had left the Lynx just before the 2009 season began and was replaced by Jennifer Gillom. She left to coach at Los Angeles for 2010, and Cheryl Reeve -- who had been an assistant with Detroit -- took over the Lynx as the Shock moved to Tulsa.
Reeve and Lynx general manager Roger Griffith wanted Whalen, and traded Renee Montgomery and the 2010 No. 1 draft pick -- which was UConn center Tina Charles -- to get her.
"You've got to give up something big to get something big," Reeve said of that deal. "I know in analyzing the team that we felt like Lindsay would give us that steadying presence, and she's come up big for us."
The Lynx dominated the fourth quarters of both the first two games of the Finals but were unable in those games to stop Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry. On Friday, the Lynx did a better job of that -- she still scored 22 points -- as Minnesota's overall defensive effort was the best it had been in the Finals.
"We got after it defensively, especially in the second half," Whalen said. "We weren't scoring well, so we knew we had to keep getting stops and rebounds."
Maya Moore ended her rookie-of-the-year season with a title, the second player to do that after Cheryl Ford in 2003. Moore, the 2011 No. 1 draft pick, had 15 points and seven rebounds Friday. Rebekkah Brunson, who won a WNBA title with Sacramento in 2005 but then went through the disappointment of the Monarchs franchise disbanding, had 13 points and nine rebounds.
And Candice Wiggins had her best game of the Finals, with 10 points and five rebounds. Like Augustus and Whalen, Wiggins didn't win an NCAA title, although she did make it to the 2008 championship game her senior season at Stanford.
"I can say this is the best moment of my career," Wiggins said Friday. "Because this is the top -- the best league in the world in women's basketball. When you win here, it means the most.
"For a lot of us, it's coming full circle. When you're a child watching the league, you say to yourself, 'Could I be there? Could I be like Cynthia Cooper?' And now we're here with the trophy."
Whalen, always the even-keel, Buddha-like personality, was asked whether she would really let go now that the season was over and the Lynx were champions. She dead-panned her answer, of course.
"We just have to stay focused," Whalen said with her standard serious face. "We've got some video to watch."
As reporters cracked up, Whalen finally let loose with a little grin.
"No and we don't have practice," she said. "We're done! We won!"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.