Dream learn valuable lessons

ATLANTA -- In the past two decades, some milestone moments in women's basketball history have happened in this city.

Let's go back to 1993, and one of the best championship-game duels in the NCAA tournament's history: Texas Tech senior Sheryl Swoopes versus Ohio State freshman Katie Smith.

It was a landmark title game: Swoopes' team won, but so did women's basketball in general. Swoopes and Smith would go on to win a combined six WNBA titles; Smith is still playing in the league.

Then there was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where the success/popularity of the U.S. women's hoops team served as a springboard for both the ABL (which had a team called the Atlanta Glory) and the surviving WNBA (which started the Dream franchise here in 2008).

In 2003, the Women's Final Four returned to Atlanta a decade after the Swoopes-Smith show, and Diana Taurasi led UConn to a second consecutive NCAA title.

And now, the Peach City has been the site of the WNBA Finals. Yes, only for one game, and the Dream didn't win it, falling 87-84 to Seattle.

But with a young squad led by dynamic star Angel McCoughtry, the Dream were ahead of schedule this year just being in the Finals. They were 4-30 their inaugural season, they fell in the first round of the playoffs last year, and then this year they gave a good showing, despite the sweep, in the Finals.

Atlanta lost all three games to Seattle -- but by only eight points combined. Each game came down to the Dream having a chance to win or tie with a final shot. Asked which was the toughest of the games, McCoughtry -- who set a Finals single-game scoring record with 35 points Thursday -- put the whole series in perspective for Atlanta.

"I can't really say -- they were all tough if you ask me," she said. "I'm only 24 years old, and I feel like I'm 40 years old! You've got to commend Seattle for being physical and doing what it takes to win. They're a great team.

"This is definitely a great learning experience for me, being my second year as a professional. I just learned, you know, it's a different ballgame in the playoffs. Every possession matters in trying to win these games in the playoffs."

McCoughtry set the postseason single-game scoring mark with 42 points in the Dream's victory over New York in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. She was the focal point of the Storm's defense in the Finals, but still scored 21 points in the opener -- along with getting three stitches during the game -- and 19 in the second contest.

Seattle's Sue Bird was days away from turning 24 and in her third WNBA season when she played in her first Finals in 2004. And even though she won that series, she has a very good idea what this one was like for a player McCoughtry's age.

"It's evident what her future holds -- she's a great player in this league," Bird said. "She's really hard to stop, and as she gets older, she'll get more experienced. She'll pick and choose her spots better, and the sky is the limit for her.

"She carried them tonight. When that 3 went up [in the final seconds], I really thought it was going to go in."

McCoughtry also put up a 3-pointer at the end of Game 1 -- it would have been the game winner -- that hit the rim. Now, she and Bird are headed to Team USA and the World Championship. Both are presumed locks to be named to the 12-player squad that will compete at the event, which starts Sept. 23 in the Czech Republic.

Atlanta coach/GM Marynell Meadors is headed there, too, as she has several Dream players involved. Iziane Castro Marques (who had 21 points Thursday and 61 for the series) and Erika de Souza will play for Brazil. Sancho Lyttle (who had a difficult night in the finale, going scoreless, but otherwise a good postseason) competes for Spain, and Yelena Leuchanka plays for Belarus.

Meadors endured that 4-30 first season feeling that things would turn around in the Dream's second season, which they did after McCoughtry came aboard as the No. 1 draft pick out of Louisville.

"She'll come back and try to get back to this same situation, except next year she'll have more experience and will play better," Meadors said. "She played great tonight. She played under control and did things we had to have her do in order to have a chance of winning.

"I think our core is in place; we just have to keep building around it. I don't think we can ever sit still -- there may be some people you have to replace, and people decide not to play. We've got two players who are both college coaches, so you never know what they might decide to do. Hopefully they'll come back and we'll get the best team on the floor that we possibly can."

Those two coach-players are guards Armintie Price and Shalee Lehning, both assistants at their respective alma maters, Mississippi and Kansas State. Lehning started during the regular season, but came off the bench in the playoffs. Price started the Dream's first six playoff games, part of the lineup switch that sparked Atlanta to sweeps of Washington and New York.

But Price suffered a foot injury in Game 2 and was not anywhere near 100 percent Thursday, playing just less than seven minutes and not scoring.

Coco Miller, the other player to come off the bench and become a starter for the playoffs, finished an excellent postseason with 12 points and five assists Thursday. Twin Kelly was out of the playoffs with an ankle injury until the Finals, but in Game 3 was closer to her usual self, with six points in just less than 18 minutes. In fact, Kelly Miller provided the Dream with their only scoring off the bench Thursday.

Especially considering this season started on what seemed an ominous note for the Dream, as Chamique Holdsclaw demanded a trade and then was waived, it was a really fine summer for the young franchise.

"I can't tell you how big this is, not only on the basketball side, but on our business side," Meadors said of the Dream's postseason run. "Their ability to be able to sell sponsorships and get new investors. Kathy Betty, our owner, has done a terrific job of involving a lot of people.

"I take some consolation in the closeness of the games and the competitive spirit we brought to the floor. We fought hard, and Seattle had to fight hard to win it."

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