Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles knows about winning awards.
The 23-year-old superstar has been collecting them since her days at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y., where she was named the 2006 McDonald's National Player of the Year. The real heavy hardware was won under the wing of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
Charles helped the Huskies win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. On the way to the second championship, she passed Nykesha Sales as UConn's all-time leading scorer.
Her remarkable resume launched her into the 2010 WNBA draft. She was the No.1 pick and won rookie of the year. She also has been the WNBA rebounding champ for the past three seasons. Her game isn't flashy but it gets the job done, she says.
After a 2011 All-Star appearance, Charles didn't get complacent -- she got better. Her ascent was marked by her 2012 Most Valuable Player award.
While Charles added the MVP to her jam-packed trophy case, she would give it all back for one thing: a WNBA championship.
"I would trade it in a second," Charles said. "The Connecticut Sun, this year we put ourselves in the best position to win and we all matured since we have been together for the past three years. We definitely knew we could have been the Eastern Conference champs. So, yeah, I would give up the MVP in a second for a championship."
Chamique Holdsclaw, former Christ the King and Tennessee great and Charles' hero, knows exactly what Charles is feeling.
"It has to be frustrating for her," Holdsclaw said. "She has experienced nothing but success from high school to two national titles with UConn. She is used to winning because she is a winner, so of course it would hurt to lose the title. Individual accolades are always going to come but the team success is what you want."
Don't get it twisted, though. The MVP meant the world to Charles. When she got the phone call from WNBA president Laurel Richie, she was overwhelmed with emotion and broke down. She then called her parents with tears in her eyes and gratitude in her voice.
"This is their MVP too," Charles said. "Without my parents' dedication to basketball I wouldn't be able to play AAU and go around and travel and be sought out by people like coach Auriemma."
As sweet as that moment was, Charles would enjoy lifting up the championship trophy with her teammates at the end of the season even more.
"Without them, my MVP would not have been possible," Charles said. "Individual accolades happen from the team's success and they give me the confidence and respect to play and they really trust in me to go out there and carry the team."
The stars seemed to be aligned for the Sun. Charles and her squad finished the regular season atop the conference with a 25-9 record. Their road record of 13-4 was the best in the league.
The team seemed to be jelling as veteran Kara Lawson had a renaissance season with a career-high 31.4 minutes per game and 74 3-pointers. Guard Renee Montgomery provided power off the bench, winning the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year. The Sun seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, yet their season ended when they were beaten in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals by eventual champion Indiana.
"It's tough, really tough," Charles said. "Last year I didn't feel like our team energy was there. But this year I felt like we were good enough to beat anyone. After we were eliminated, I would wake up and think, 'Wow, I should be getting on a flight going to Minnesota now like Indiana was.' But I was really happy for Tamika Catchings. It was her first [championship] and she's such a respected player."
After the loss, Charles went home and avoided any mention of the WNBA Finals. She stayed off the Internet and away from sports television.
"I avoided everything," Charles said. "If someone brought [the playoffs] up and asked me, 'Who are you going for?' I just dismissed it. I didn't want to have anything to do with it."
Tammy Sutton Brown, an 11-year WNBA veteran who earned her first championship with the Indiana Fever, said she understood.
"I remember that feeling of just not wanting to have anything to do with the playoffs once you were eliminated," Brown said. "But when you finally get the title, it's worth the wait."
It has been about a month since the Sun were knocked out of the playoffs and for Charles, three weeks of rest with family and friends have eased the pain. It's the first lengthy break Charles has had since being drafted in 2010.
She left for Poland on Oct. 31 to play in the Euro League. Two of her teammates on the Wilsa Can-Pack Krakow team will be familiar -- Katie Douglas and Erin Philips of the Indiana Fever. Armed with her laptop, phone and Little Debbie oatmeal pies, Charles will try to hold on to a little piece of home while playing overseas.
Her Polish team could see immense success this season. While an international championship would be great to add to her résumé, it would not take the place of winning a WNBA title.
"It means more because you're playing in front of your family and friends," Charles said. "I think all of us, being American, growing up the WNBA was the elite for us. That's the top. The WNBA championship is the thing we all desire."