Coaches will tell players the importance of never giving up on a play as long as there are sports. But there's nothing like seeing it to believe it. Seattle Storm guard Briann January, who will retire at the end of the 2022 WNBA season after 14 years in the league, embodies that kind of hustle. As we release our penultimate WNBA Power Rankings this week, we also pay tribute to January. The 5-foot-8 guard made many such plays, but one stands out as the biggest of her career.
January, an Arizona State standout, was part of the 2009 draft class that had one of the best first rounds in WNBA history. Angel McCoughtry, Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver, Renee Montgomery, DeWanna Bonner, January, Courtney Paris and Kia Vaughn were picks 1-8. Selected at No. 11 was Shavonte Zellous, who would combine with January on the play that helped the Indiana Fever reach their biggest accomplishment in franchise history.
In 2012, the Connecticut Sun had the Eastern Conference's best record at 25-9, while Indiana was second at 22-12. Both Tamika Catchings and fellow Fever star Katie Douglas had turned 33 earlier that year, and both knew their championship window was starting to close.
In the East finals (under the old playoff format), the Fever were down 0-1 in their best-of-three series with the Sun. Late in a tight Game 2 battle in Indiana, the Sun tied the score at 76 but missed a free throw attempt on a three-point play, and Catchings grabbed the rebound.
Catchings, who saw January break in front and streak toward the basket, heaved a perfect pass while falling that hit January in stride. She went in for the layup untouched, but her shot was a little hard off the glass and the ball rolled out. January immediately chased after it, and then went diving into the courtside seats to tip the ball back to Zellous.
Zellous had made just one field goal that night, but her foul-line jumper swished with five-tenths of a second left. The Fever evened the series and went on to win Game 3 at Connecticut and then upset the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, the team with the league's best record, in the WNBA Finals.
If January had hesitated while lamenting her missed shot, the ball likely would have gone out of bounds to Connecticut with just over four seconds left, giving the Sun a chance to win and close out the series. Who knows what might have happened if the game had gone to overtime. Instead, the Fever got an emotional win and rode that wave to their title, even overcoming Douglas' injury in Game 3 at Connecticut that kept her from competing in the Finals.
January averaged 10.3 points and 3.9 assists that 2012 regular season, and 11.5 and 3.8 in the playoffs. But defense has been even more her calling card: She's a five-time WNBA all-defensive first-team honoree, including 2012 and last year, and has twice been named to the second team.
January made two other WNBA Finals appearances with the Fever, in 2009 and 2015. She spent 2018 and '19 with the Phoenix Mercury, 2020 and '21 with Connecticut and will finish her career with Seattle.
"I was really excited when we were able to get her in free agency," Storm forward Breanna Stewart said. "She's tough and gritty and just never stops working. Whenever her number is called, she's ready to fight. And at the same time, she's such a great leader and has a great presence in the locker room, where she's always continuing to help others."
The Storm clinched a playoff spot Saturday, and while it's going to be a very competitive postseason, January and teammate Sue Bird, who is also retiring, have a chance to win another title. But that 2012 championship and January's diving play to help save Indiana's magical season will always be remembered fondly by Fever and WNBA fans.
After that East Game 2 victory, January summed up the play matter-of-factly: "We're going to give everything we have. That buzzer hadn't sounded. You play until that thing goes off."
It's the way January has always played the game.
1. Las Vegas Aces
Previous ranking: 2
The Commissioner's Cup championship game doesn't count in the WNBA standings, but the Aces' 93-83 victory in Chicago in that event impacts our Power Rankings. Admittedly, the Aces' other two wins this week were at last-place Indiana, but it's all enough to propel them back to No. 1. They scored 93, 93 and 94 points in their games. But they are facing a challenging week of contests requiring coast-to-coast travel, the results of which could go quite a ways in determining which team ends up with the league's best record. For now, it's still Chicago.
This week: at Washington (Tuesday), at Dallas (Thursday), at Seattle (Sunday)
2. Chicago Sky
Previous ranking: 1
The Sky got guard Courtney Vandersloot back after missing four games with concussion symptoms; she returned for the Commissioner's Cup final. Chicago lost that game but followed with victories against New York and at Connecticut, both without Candace Parker, who has been out with a non-COVID-19 illness. Sunday's win against the Sun was particularly gritty. The Sky overcame a technical foul against coach James Wade with 28 seconds left in regulation that led to a game-tying free throw, and they went on a 9-0 run to end the overtime. And while the Aces are traveling the country this week, the Sky have three games at home.
This week: vs. Dallas (Tuesday), vs. Washington (Friday), vs. Connecticut (Sunday)
3. Connecticut Sun
Previous ranking: 3
The Sun have played very well since the All-Star Game, with their only losses coming to top-two teams Las Vegas and Chicago. The latter came Sunday in overtime and had to irritate the Sun, as they looked to have the upper hand in the extra period before the Sky's game-closing run. Connecticut got the unfortunate news that recent signee Bria Hartley is out for the season because of an ACL injury suffered July 24. But this is a team that has proved its resilience in regard to injuries.
This week: vs. Phoenix (Tuesday), vs. Phoenix (Thursday), at Chicago (Sunday)
4. Washington Mystics
Previous ranking: 4
Washington split with Seattle over the weekend, leaving them both tied in the standings. But the Storm won the season series, so they have the tiebreaker. The Mystics got a victory at Dallas without Elena Delle Donne, who didn't travel. Then she was able to play the back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday against Seattle, combining for 39 points -- a good sign for her and the Mystics.
This week: vs. Las Vegas (Tuesday), at Chicago (Friday), vs. Los Angeles (Sunday)
5. Seattle Storm
Previous ranking: 5
With three games on the East Coast this past week -- at Connecticut and twice at Washington -- the Storm had hoped to win at least two. But the one they got -- Saturday against the Mystics -- was enough to clinch a playoff spot. That was an emotional moment for center Tina Charles, who joined the Storm after leaving Phoenix in late June and has not appeared in the postseason since 2017, when she was with New York. "This is the most prepared team that I've ever been on," Charles said. "I'm just very thankful I had the opportunity to be with this organization." Coming up Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) is Bird's final regular-season game at home.
This week: vs. Minnesota (Wednesday), vs. Las Vegas (Sunday)
6. Phoenix Mercury
Previous ranking: 6
After having won three of its last four, including against Los Angeles this past Thursday, Phoenix looked like the "bad Mercury" again Sunday in an 89-69 loss at New York. It was a rough game shooting for guards Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi and Shey Peddy, who were a combined 12-of-40 from the field. And with the small-ball style the Mercury have to play this season, their kryptonite is shooting slumps. But we've learned not to read too much into any one result from Phoenix, which stays put in the Power Rankings this week despite that loss.
This week: at Connecticut (Tuesday), at Connecticut (Thursday), vs. New York (Saturday)
7. Dallas Wings
Previous ranking: 9
The Wings are 3-4 since the All-Star Game. They are not gaining ground, but they aren't really losing it, either. The best news of the week was center Teaira McCowan having her top game this season in a loss to Washington (27 points, 11 rebounds), followed by another double-double in a win over Atlanta (14 and 14). She was a combined 15-of-22 from the field in those two games. A big challenge this week: The Wings face the top two teams in the league two days apart.
This week: at Chicago (Tuesday), vs. Las Vegas (Thursday), vs. Indiana (Saturday)
8. Minnesota Lynx
Previous ranking: 11
The Lynx were down but this past week proved they are not out, as they got important wins on the road at Atlanta and Los Angeles. That came after they had lost four of their previous five and saw their playoff hopes greatly shrinking. But it's not over yet. However, Minnesota has just five games left -- two of them against Seattle -- so there isn't much time to make up ground.
This week: at Seattle (Wednesday), vs. Atlanta (Sunday)
9. Los Angeles Sparks
Previous ranking: 7
After many years of saying Los Angeles was where she always wanted to be, center Liz Cambage left the Sparks this past week, not making it through a full season. That might be the last we will see of her in the WNBA. The No. 2 pick in 2011, Cambage was never all that happy very long anywhere in the league. Despite her size and skills, no other team might want to deal with the issues of discontentment that seem to surround her. The Sparks lost to Phoenix and Minnesota after Cambage's exit, and they now have four consecutive games in the Eastern time zone this week. It's really sink-or-swim time.
This week: at New York (Tuesday), at New York (Wednesday), at Atlanta (Friday), at Washington (Sunday)
10. Atlanta Dream
Previous ranking: 8
The Dream are going in the wrong direction at the wrong time, having lost four in a row. That includes falling to Minnesota and Dallas this past week, with both games at home. They scored just 68 points against the Wings. A visit from downtrodden Indiana this week -- when Atlanta has two more home games -- could help, but the Dream can't overlook anyone now as they try to grab a playoff spot. That would be a nice way to cap off a strong rookie campaign from top draft pick Rhyne Howard.
This week: vs. Indiana (Wednesday), vs. Los Angeles (Friday), at Minnesota (Sunday)
11. New York Liberty
Previous ranking: 10
The Liberty lost at Chicago but then pounded Phoenix at home this past week, so they also remain in the oft-repeated "playoff mix." Sabrina Ionescu had a Liberty franchise-record 16 assists in the win against the Mercury, and no one will be surprised if she breaks her own record (maybe many times). An interesting thing about the remainder of their schedule: The Liberty have three back-to-back foes in the Sparks, Wings and Dream, plus one game against Phoenix.
This week: vs. Los Angeles (Tuesday), vs. Los Angeles (Wednesday), at Phoenix (Saturday)
12. Indiana Fever
Previous ranking: 12
The Fever's losing streak is now at 14 after two losses to the Aces, but a merciful end to the season is in sight with just four games left. Guard Kelsey Mitchell has had a very good year, averaging a career-best 18.4 points. But she is done for the season with a plantar fascia tear in her left foot. Hopefully she is healthy for 2023, when the Fever might be adding a No. 1 draft pick.
This week: at Atlanta (Wednesday), at Dallas (Saturday)