Cash helps carry Storm to Finals

Swin Cash laughs and says there are "little pieces of" her kind of spread all over the country. Western Pennsylvania is where she grew up. Connecticut is where she went to college. Detroit is where her WNBA career began, and she still has a home there. Seattle is where she had her pro renaissance. Miami is where she has enjoyed hanging out during some of her offseason time over the past few years.

Wherever she goes, this is always the same: Cash leaves an impact.

After knee problems, back problems and chemistry problems with the coaching staff in Detroit, Cash at one point had to wonder if she'd ever be in this position again: playing for a WNBA championship.

But she is, and once again she's an integral part of her team. She is also expected to be named to the U.S. national team and take part in the upcoming world championship, playing again for UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

"I would say that I have matured in understanding not only what it takes to be a professional, but to stay at the highest level," said the 6-foot-1 forward. "Making sure that you are taking care of yourself, in regard to your health and your preparation. Working on your game continually in order to be the best."

When Seattle takes on Atlanta in the WNBA Finals, starting at 3 p.m. ET Sunday at KeyArena (ABC), plenty of focus will be on Cash because of her reputation as a defensive stopper. The Dream most definitely have some players that need stopping, from the Storm's point of view, starting with Angel McCoughtry. Or at least need slowing down.

Atlanta knows what it's up against in facing Cash.

"Swin's a great defender; she'll lock up on the other team's best scorer, then she can turn it right around and score on you," Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said. "She has endless energy; she never stops. I think a lot of people had given up on her when she was hurt, but she's back. Let me tell you, she is back. She's the X factor for them. She's had a tremendous year."

Cash averaged 13.8 points and 6.0 rebounds in the regular season; she's at 16.8 and 5.0 in the Storm's four playoff games. She has made far more 3-pointers in 2010 -- 35 in the regular season and seven thus far in the playoffs -- than in any previous WNBA season.

And that energy that Meadors mentioned was displayed in classic Cash style during Seattle's come-from-behind victory against Phoenix on Sunday, which sent the Storm to the Finals.

"I remember my high school coach would always tell me, 'You need to play with an animal mentality,'" Cash said. "And at first I was like, 'Huh? Animal mentality?' But I got it in my mind that meant to always be aggressive, to be in-your-face for 40 minutes. It just stuck with me, and I'm an emotional player, so I relish that."

What Seattle coach Brian Agler also values about Cash is that she impacts the Storm's offense even if she never touches the ball on a possession.

"I always knew what kind of competitor and person she was," Agler said. "But another thing that stands out about her is she can be very good with the basketball, and also very good without it. To me, that's the sign of a great player -- someone who knows what you can do to help your team when the ball's not in your hands.

"She's a very smart player, an exceptional defender and rebounder, and she's really improved her offensive capabilities. She's one of very few people that have gone from playing more of a 4 position into a 3 spot. That's a hard transition to make, and not many people do it, let alone do it this well. She's steadily increased her skills -- the shooting, the ballhandling, the passing -- in the three years she's been here."

The six seasons before that, Cash was in Detroit, where she won two championships and seemed, at least at first, to be continuing the top-of-the-world mentality she brought from her perfect senior year at UConn.

But after a knee injury near the end of the 2004 season, Cash was a shadow of herself in the 21 games she played in 2005, averaging just 5.7 points. She started throughout 2006 and 2007, once again averaging in double-figures scoring. And the Shock won another WNBA title in '06, while making the Finals in '07. Yet Cash became increasingly unhappy as her relationship with the coaching staff unraveled.

Cash dealt with some serious injury issues in Detroit, and it took rehab, rest and reflection to recover from those.

"I feel like I had to … well, I guess you could say reinvent myself," Cash said. "I came into the league on such a high, and then got to a very low point. To be able to climb back up that ladder and play like you know you're capable of playing -- it's been tough.

"The decisions to get my back surgery, where to train, where to have my focus, whether to spend some time overseas -- every decision I made was to help me get back to this point, playing like I have this season. I'm really thankful to have people in my corner that love me and care about me and were right there with me throughout everything."

Certainly the UConn nation was in Cash's corner, and Huskies fans were particularly irked by Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer's comments that questioned her toughness and mentality.

It was a difficult, challenging time for Cash, who felt personally insulted. But now, looking back on it all, she now takes a philosophical approach, one that speaks to her willingness to put herself through a rugged self-examination.

So when you watch Cash in these Finals, once again competing as an elite player, it's important to remember that for all the peaks she has reached -- NCAA titles, gold medals, WNBA championships -- she had to get through some significant valleys, too.

"Sometimes players get injuries and they never come back," Cash said. "Sometimes they get injuries, and it's a wake-up call. For me, not only was it a physical thing, but also a mental thing.

"There were so many question marks about me: Am I going to be a good player again, can I do this, am I committed to playing the game? There were questions about my heart and my toughness.

"People said and wrote a lot of things -- and rightfully so. Some of them were question marks that should have been there, because there were things I didn't do. But to fight back from that, to mentally get back into the game and physically prepare my body to be a high-caliber athlete, those are things that I've learned. I thank God for all my years in the WNBA, because I've learned something every single year."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.