Still no title, but a very special season for Hammon

PHOENIX -- Becky Hammon has been here before. Many times, in fact. This was her seventh appearance in the WNBA playoffs. But again, she will go away without a championship.

That surely was weighing on her mind in San Antonio's locker room after the Silver Stars lost 98-92 to Phoenix in the concluding game of the Western Conference finals.

Hammon's first six playoff appearances were with New York, including going to the WNBA Finals with the Liberty in 1999, 2000 and 2002. The first two times, New York lost to Houston. Then it fell to Los Angeles.

Hammon gave a lot of heart to the Liberty in her eight seasons there, so it wasn't easy getting the call that she was headed to Texas. A draft-day trade in April sent her to San Antonio, and Hammon had to quickly establish herself in a new city with a new team that had not had a winning record in its four seasons in San Antonio after moving from Utah.

But Hammon was the key player to help change that in 2007, leading the Silver Stars to a 20-14 regular-season finish and a first-round playoff win over Sacramento. She had 32 points in San Antonio's 102-100 loss to Phoenix on Thursday in a game that probably will eat away at her for a while because of how it ended.

However, Saturday's loss is going to stick with her, too, because it meant the finish of a season that has been very special for her. She put herself in the running for MVP honors and showed that, at age 30, she still has a lot of great basketball ahead of her.

She would not call her performance Saturday up to par -- 14 points on 5-of-18 shooting -- but credit how hard Phoenix worked to defend her. The officials didn't give her any "help" either, as she went to the line for just two free throws, making both.

She had eight assists and fouled out with 26 seconds left, knowing then it was too late for the Silver Stars to have another rally like the one Thursday.

"We hung on; we gave it a good shot," Hammon said. "It's very disappointing the way it panned out."

Her longtime Liberty teammate Vickie Johnson -- who spent nine years in New York before coming to San Antonio in 2006 -- also, of course, knows about the sting of coming close but not winning it all.

VJ was a starter on the aforementioned Liberty teams that made the league finals, as well as the 1997 squad that lost the single-game WNBA championship to Houston. Plus, let's not forget that Johnson's Louisiana Tech team lost in the 1994 NCAA title game on the most famous shot in women's college history: the last-second 3-pointer by North Carolina's Charlotte Smith.

You have to wonder: Are Hammon and VJ ever going to get that deserved ultimate triumph?

Saturday, the Silver Stars' younger players did what they could to help the team stay alive this season. Shanna Crossley -- called for the questionable foul that led to Phoenix's winning points Thursday -- clearly was determined to try to "make up" for that on Saturday. She led the Silver Stars with 20 points, hitting 6 of 10 3-pointers. Her fellow second-year pro, Sophia Young, had 19 points and 10 rebounds.

Those two and rookie Camille Little combined with veteran players Hammon, Johnson, Ruth Riley, Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Helen Darling to make the Silver Stars a different team this season.

Talking about that was what brought tears for Hammon after Saturday's game.

"I just … when I think about these girls …" Hammon said, pausing to wrestle with her emotions, "it's probably the best group of girls that I've ever played with, as people. So I was really humbled to be a part of it -- and grateful.

"It's the depth of the character of this team. Everybody came in and it was open doors, and we developed a lot of trust quickly. It's really a special group."

Hammon was asked whether she thinks most of the team will be back for 2008.

"We hope so," she said, breaking into a smile. "This team -- one thing is we continued to get better, and that's a hard thing to do at this level. We continued to work and stick together.

"We have a lot to build on; we took a lot of big steps as a team. As an organization, we have to build for the future."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.