MINNEAPOLIS -- Maya Moore has been a WNBA fan for a long time. When she was 8 years old in 1997, she watched the new league's first season and its first champions, the Houston Comets.
Wednesday night, she and her Lynx teammates joined the Comets as four-time champions, beating the Sparks 85-76, as Moore led an almost perfectly balanced Lynx scoring attack with 18 points.
But while the Lynx undeniably finished as the best team this year, it felt as if the entire WNBA won. For the third consecutive season, we were treated to a WNBA Finals that went the distance. The past two years especially, have been fantastic, with Minnesota versus Los Angeles and two Game 5s that sent hearts racing for anyone who was watching.
"Great basketball," Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. "We always talk about what we want to do for the league. And the only thing we can do is put out a great product. People were very excited about last year, and especially the way that it ended. And then the rematch this year."
In its 21st season, the WNBA couldn't have asked for a better storyline: the two best teams facing off again. Last year, the Sparks won the title with a 77-76 victory in Game 5 on the Lynx's home court at Target Center, with Nneka Ogwumike hitting the winning shot with 3.1 seconds left.
Sylvia Fowles is the first WNBA player since 2010 to win MVP in the regular season and in the WNBA Finals. She averaged 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds in the playoffs.
This year, the Lynx again fell behind 2-1 in the series, and kept the Sparks from winning a title on their home court in Game 4. But this time, the Lynx were not going to be defeated at home -- although this "home" was Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota's campus, where Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen had played collegiately. Target Center is being renovated, which meant the Lynx were semi-nomads this season, playing at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the regular season and Williams for the postseason. In both cases, though, the Lynx/Timberwolves management under owner Glen Taylor did all it could to make both buildings feel like home for the Lynx, putting up the teams' banners and other signage, and at Williams, paying about $1 million to bring in temporary air conditioning.
Meanwhile, the Sparks have felt particularly well-supported, too, since the Magic Johnson/Mark Walter-led group bought the franchise in 2014.
"It seems like we have two organizations who are doing their own thing, and it's being celebrated on both ends," Ogwumike said. "I think there's a lot of great basketball ahead for both teams."
How close has this rivalry been? The Lynx and Sparks have met 16 times since the start of the 2016 season. They've each won eight, with the Sparks scoring three more points, total, than the Lynx (1,221-1,218). And they've both come away with a championship.
Wednesday, the Lynx grabbed the lead from the start and never let it go. It got a bit nerve-wracking in the final minute. The Sparks were without Ogwumike, who had fouled out on a Rebekkah Brunson 3-point play with 5 minutes, 29 seconds left -- but cut the lead to just three after consecutive layups by Odyssey Sims after steals.
Last year, Moore had made a turnaround jumper to give the Lynx the lead with 15.4 seconds left, but then saw Ogwumike's shot take the trophy. This time, Moore was the one who effectively shut the door, hitting a floater with 26.5 seconds left. That put the Lynx back up by five, and the Sparks didn't score again. Whalen and Sylvia Fowles closed it out with four free throws.
"We said, 'You can't retreat against pressure, you have to attack the pressure,' " Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "And that's what Maya did. Maya made a hard shot. I heard Lindsay say, 'That's Maya Moore. She makes plays.' "
But all the Lynx did, Whalen included. She's so beloved here in her home state, and this Game 5 was vintage Whalen -- diving for loose balls, attacking the rim, making smart defensive plays against opponents who might be quicker but can't always get past her.
"This is what your career is about. You want to put yourself with the best of the best, and Minnesota has it." WNBA Finals MVP Sylvia Fowles, who forced a trade to Minnesota in 2015
Whalen broke her hand on Aug. 3 and then missed the last 12 games of the regular season. She returned for the playoffs, and had her second-highest point total of the season Wednesday with 17. She also had a combined 14 assists in Games 4 and 5.
Moore added 10 rebounds to her 18 points, and Augustus had 14 points and six assists. Like Moore, Augustus said her earliest WNBA memory was watching the Comets, a team that folded after 2008 but is still recalled fondly.
"They kind of set the tone; they motivated each and every one of us to one day want to be here [in the WNBA]," said Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player, who has been with the franchise since being selected No. 1 in the 2006 draft.
Brunson had 13 points and eight rebounds, and added her name to the WNBA history books. This was her fifth WNBA title; she won her first with Sacramento in 2005.
"She works her tail off every single day," Reeve said of Brunson.
The Lynx had some nice stories from the bench, too. Two former Texas Tech teammates, Jia Perkins and Plenette Pierson, won a championship together. It was the third for Pierson, who won two with the former Detroit Shock in 2006 and 2008 when Reeve was an assistant coach there.
"I think there's a lot of great basketball ahead for both teams."
Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike
It was the first, though, for Perkins, who is in her 14th season after being picked in the draft's third round -- at No. 35 overall -- back in 2004. Perkins was pregnant with her daughter at the time, and most teams didn't want to risk selecting her, despite how good her college career was. Reeve then was an assistant at Charlotte, and advocated for drafting Perkins.
"I thank God for the opportunity, and for someone believing in me," said Perkins, who played for Charlotte, Chicago and San Antonio before being traded to the Lynx last year. "It was great for me coming into this environment, and them showing me how to be a champion. It's been an amazing ride."
Then, of course, there is Fowles, who has stood so tall this season. She advocated for a trade to Minnesota in 2015, and was prepared to sit out that entire season to get Chicago to make the deal. After seven years with the Sky, she felt she still had room to grow as a player, and looked to the Lynx to help her make that happen.
Midway through the 2015 season, the trade took place, and Fowles went on to be the WNBA Finals MVP that year as the Lynx beat Indiana in five games. That was her first title. Wednesday, she got her second, and became the first player since Seattle's Lauren Jackson in 2010 to win the MVP award for both the regular season and the WNBA Finals. This year, Fowles averaged a double-double in the regular season (18.9 points and 10.4 rebounds) and in the playoffs (18.9 and 12.1).
"It's been a tough season, a grind, but we showed a lot of character," said Fowles, who had 17 points, four assists and a WNBA Finals-record 20 rebounds Wednesday. "This is what your career is about. You want to put yourself with the best of the best, and Minnesota has it."