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WNBA better than ever after 15 seasons
By Dave Wohlhueter

For excitement and entertainment, the 15th WNBA season couldn't have been any better. Fans were enthusiastic, and for the fifth straight season, attendance was up.

That doesn't mean that all teams are boasting of sellout crowds. There's still plenty of room for you newcomers to the world of women's basketball, and it's a world that gets better with every season, every game and every minute of action.

A new champion was crowned, as the Minnesota Lynx ran away with the regular season (27-7), and then swept 2010 runner-up Atlanta in the three-game Finals. It was the first title for the Minnesota franchise that finished the regular campaign 9-1 over the final 10 outings. It didn't matter to the Lynx in what venue it played, recording a 14-3 record at home and 13-4 on the road.

The WNBA has featured a new champion for the past nine years. Los Angeles, in 2001 and 2002, was the last repeat champ. During this time, Detroit won three titles (2008, 2006, 2003), Seattle won twice (2010, 2004) and Phoenix took a pair (2009, 2007).

Once again, the final playoff lineup wasn't decided until after the season finale. Indiana (21-13) won a tiebreaker over Connecticut (21-13) for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta (20-14) and New York (19-15) rounded out the top four in the East.

After Minnesota in the Western Conference, there was a real battle for the next three spots. Seattle (21-13), last year's champion, finished in second place, followed by Phoenix (19-15). San Antonio (18-16) was the No. 4 seed in the West.

Individual performances get better and better each season. Connecticut second-year center Tina Charles broke her own double-doubles record of 22 set when she was a rookie by scoring and pulling down rebounds in double digits in 23 contests. Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi won her fourth straight scoring title in a highly-contested battle with Atlanta forward Angel McCoughtry. Taurasi scored 21.63 ppg. to 21.56 for the second-year all-star from Atlanta.

McCoughtry was selected as the Gballmag.com Player of the Year, while the WNBA went with Tamika Catchings of Indiana for its MVP.

Gballmag.com chose Chicago center Sylvia Fowles as its Defensive Player of the Year, while Tulsa forward Tiffany Jackson was the website's Most Improved Player. This year's Rookie of the Year honor went to Minnesota forward Maya Moore; and her coach, Cheryl Reeve, took home Coach of the Year.

Reeve, in only her second season as a head coach, took a young team to a 14-win improvement over last year's dismal 13-21 slate. This was the second-largest turnaround in WNBA history.

Named to the Gballmag.com all-star first team were: McCoughtry, Catchings, Fowles, Taurasi and Lindsay Whelan of Minnesota. The second unit consisted of forwards Seimone Augustus of Minnesota and Penny Taylor of Phoenix; center Charles; and guards Cappie Pondexter of New York and Sue Bird of Seattle.

Here's what we can expect for the 2012 season before any personnel changes and additions of the 2012 rookie class. The teams are listed in the order they finished in 2011.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Indiana (21-13) is a perennial playoff contender. The Fever knocked off New York in the conference semis, but then got whipped by Atlanta in a best-of-three series in the finals. Year in, year out, Indiana is one of the best defensive teams in the league. This past year, it fell to No. 3 defensively. WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings was also named to the league defensive first team, and guard Katie Douglas made the second unit. Catchings, in her ninth season, topped the team in scoring at 15.5 ppg., rebounding (7.1 rpg. and steals (2.03 spg.). Douglas is also an offensive threat with 13.9 ppg. Ironically, the team's third-leading scorer is reserve center Jessica Davenport (10.7 ppg.) who also grabbed 4.8 rpg. while making just eight starts. Two other veterans, guard Erin Phillips (8.6 ppg.) and forward Tangela Smith (7.2 ppg.), started 32 games apiece. After last year's season, we thought Indiana needed more muscle up front, and yet it went for Stanford guard Jeanette Pohlen who made 46.8 percent of her shots from behind the arc, but didn't get enough attempts. The Fever still needs more punch underneath to help out Catchings. Cierra Bravard, a 6-4 post player out of Florida State would be a good addition, but may not be available by the time Indiana picks in the 2012 draft. Another possibility might be Michigan State post Lykendra Johnson who was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.

Connecticut (21-13) is another extremely competitive team, but never gets far in the playoffs. The Sun had trouble winning on the road (6-11), but was nearly unbeatable at home (15-2). Certainly its big gun is second-year center Tina Charles who led the team in scoring (17.6 ppg.) and rebounding (11.0 rpg.). Guard Renee Montgomery averaged 14.6 ppg. and 4.9 apg., while forward Asjha Jones scored 13.3 ppg. and was the team's second-leading rebounder (6.4 rpg.). Veteran guard Kara Lawson came off the bench to score 10.4 ppg. Head coach Mike Thibault likes former UConn players with five currently on the squad, and maybe he will go for Huskie guard Tiffany Hayes in the draft. After all, she was second on the UConn squad last year (13.6 ppg.) behind Maya Moore.

Atlanta (20-14) is the team to beat in the playoffs over the past two seasons. The next step up for the Dream is to win it all. Gballmag.com MVP Angel McCoughtry, in her third season, gets better and better. McCoughtry (21.56 ppg.) was edged out by Diana Taurasi (21.63) for the scoring title, and she was second on the Dream in rebounds (5.2 rpg.). Center Erika de Souza is a force underneath with 11.8 ppg. and a team-leading 7.5 rpg. Fourth-year guard Lindsey Harding is really coming into her own with 10.5 ppg. and 4.8 apg. Forward Sancho Lyttle battled injuries that forced her to miss 12 games. When in action, she averaged 10.0 ppg. and 6.3 rpg. Guard Armintie Price started 21 games and averaged 8.5 ppg., while guard/forward Iziane Castro Marques started 14 contests and came off the bench in 20 others to average 7.6 ppg. The Dream has no vital needs, and can go for the best player available when it comes time to draft.

New York (19-15). Guard Cappie Pondexter is still the key to much of the success enjoyed by the Liberty. Pondexter averaged 17.4 ppg. and 4.7 apg., and was Gballmag.com second team. Forward Plenette Pierson, who came off the bench in 2010, was a starter this past year, and averaged 12.9 ppg. and 5.2 rpg. Forward Essence Carson was the team's third-leading scorer (11.3 ppg.) even though she saw reserve duty. The biggest surprise was the improvement made by center Kia Vaughn who started every game, scoring 10.1 ppg. and pulling down 6.7 rpg. for No. 1 on the team. The WNBA gave her its Most Improved Player Award. Forward Nicole Powell and guard Leilani Mitchell were the other starters who averaged 9.7 ppg. and 5.6 ppg., respectively. Another scoring guard such as Shenise Johnson of the University of Miami would be a good choice for New York in the 2012 draft.

Chicago (14-20) has definitely one of the elite players in the WNBA in center/forward Sylvia Fowles. She was Gballmag.com first team, and the website's Defensive Player of the Year with 2.00 bpg. Fowles averaged 20.0 ppg. (third in the league) and 10.2 rpg. (second in WNBA). Guard Epiphanny Prince had a great sophomore season, averaging 13.6 ppg., 3.0 apg. and 2.32 spg. Rookie guard Courtney Vandersloot scored 6.5 ppg. and handed out 3.7 apg. Veteran center Michelle Snow was quite quiet, scoring 5.9 ppg. and grabbing 6.3 rpg. This is a team that is really hungry for the playoffs, but hasn't learned how to succeed at that level. The Sky needs aggressive rebounding help for Fowles, and more perimeter shooting. If Chicago could pull off the lottery pick, a great choice would be Stanford post Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Johnson of Miami would add perimeter shooting.

Washington (6-28) went from the penthouse in 2010 to the basement this past summer. Injuries have just devastated the Mystics. Veteran forward Monique Currie played just four games, while all-star guard/forward Alana Beard didn't see any playing time in 2011. A return to full-time action for both of these players would help tremendously. Forward Crystal Langhorne tried to pick up the slack and averaged 18.2 ppg., while third-year guard Matee Ajavon had her best season in the pros with 14.7 ppg. and 3.1 apg. Forward Marissa Coleman was down with 8.6 ppg. Center Nicky Anosike, picked up in a trade from Minnesota, didn't pan out. She scored just 7.0 ppg. and pulled down 7.2 rpg. The Lynx could turn this trade into another No. 1 pick if it can win the lottery. Washington has to score more points. If Currie and Beard return healthy, the Mystics will be back in business. If not, it will take a lot of help from the draft, and Washington is missing its No. 1 pick.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Minnesota (27-7) put everything together in 2011, and the future is extremely bright for the Lynx. Guard Seimone Augustus averaged 16.2 ppg. and 3.5 rpg. to top the team, and was named to the Gballmag.com second quintet. Guard Lindsay Whalen, Gballmag.com first team, was the engineer of the Lynx attack. She was No. 1 in the WNBA with 5.85 apg., while scoring 13.6 ppg. She made 51.1 percent of her shots from the field (40.5 % behind the arc). Forward Maya Moore, everyone's Rookie of the Year, lived up to her press clippings, averaging 13.2 ppg. and 1.2 spg. to top all rookies. She also recorded 4.6 rpg. and 2.7 apg. Forward Rebekkah Brunson was a beast on the boards, pulling down 8.9 rpg., while scoring 10.2 ppg. Veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin was another big contributor in so many ways, starting 33 games and averaging 8.3 ppg. and 6.00 rpg. Bench strength was also a key to the Minnesota success. Defensively, the Lynx held opponents to a league-low 41.3 shooting, and it led the WNBA in rebounding (36.5 rpg.). Even though it won the league, Minnesota is in the running for the No. 1 lottery pick to be determined in November. The Lynx traded Nicky Anosike for Washington's 2012 No. 1 pick, and it could end up being a dandy.

Seattle (21-13) lost out on its chance to successfully defend its title. The 2010 MVP Lauren Jackson missed 11 games with an injured hip, and she only averaged 12.2 ppg. when she did see action. This put the burden on guard Sue Bird and forward Swin Cash. Bird averaged 14.7 ppg. and 4.9 apg. to garner Gballmag.com second-team honors. Cash pumped in 13.3 ppg., and was the team's leading rebounder with 6.9 rpg. She was named to the WNBA All-Defensive team, along with teammate Tanisha Wright, a guard who scored 10.1 ppg. Forward Camille Little started 33 games and scored 9.6 ppg. Ashley Robinson filled in at center for Jackson, but could only average 3.8 ppg. The Storm played outstanding defense as the No. 1 team in the WNBA. The 2011 draft provided only one player for Seattle, so the team must come up with outstanding choices next spring. Jackson also plans to miss part of the 2012 campaign to train with the Australian Olympic team.

Phoenix (19-15) battled Seattle for the No. 2 spot in the West, but lost out in the end. The Mercury was down a bit in scoring (89.0 ppg.), and that is not good for a team that lets the opposition tally 86.0 ppg. Guard Diana Taurasi led the WNBA in scoring (21.6 ppg.) for the fourth straight season, and she handed out 3.6 apg. and grabbed 3.2 rpg. She was Gballmag.com first team for the sixth year. Forward Penny Taylor had an outstanding season with 16.7 ppg. and 4.9 rpg. She made the Gballmag.com second unit. Forward/center Candice Dupree was solid with 14.6 ppg. and 8.20 rpg. Forward DeWanna Bonner won the WNBA Sixth Man Award again, coming off the bench to average 10.7 ppg. and 7.00 rpg. Veteran guard Temeka Johnson, a sixth-year pro, helped out with 4.4 apg., while averaging 6.4 ppg. The Mercury needs a big person in the middle who can run the floor, grab rebounds and block shots.

San Antonio (18-16) took a game from Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs, but that was the end of the road for the Silver Stars. Success had to come from a team effort led by veteran guard Becky Hammon who averaged 15.9 ppg. and 5.8 apg. Forward Sophia Young had an average year with 13.2 ppg. and 6.4 rpg. The third-leading scorer was rookie forward Danielle Adams (12.4 ppg., 4.3 rpg.) who led Texas A&M to the national championship last spring. Another veteran, center Ruth Riley, averaged 5.6 ppg. and 3.8 rpg., but that isn't enough from a person who started 34 games. Guard Tully Bevilaqua finished her 12th season with 2.9 ppg. Once a defensive star, Bevilaqua played just 14.5 mpg. A younger Scholanda Robinson started 22 games at guard, but averaged just 4.8 ppg. The Silver Stars need more backcourt help for Hammon who also just finished her 12th campaign.

Los Angeles (15-19) needs some youth and a healthy Candace Parker. Parker averaged 18.5 ppg., but only played in 17 games because of an injury. The leading scorer was forward DeLisha Milton-Jones with 11.7 ppg., but she just finished her 13th season. Another veteran, forward Tina Thompson, has played in the league every year, but still managed to start 33 games, averaging 9.9 ppg. and 4.6 rpg. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro completed her 14th season, averaging 6.0 ppg., but still dished out 4.8 apg. The key performer here could be rookie center Jantel Lavender who played in 33 games with 3.10 rpg. and 6.6 ppg. Look for her to be a huge force in 2012. The Sparks need help both up front and in the backcourt, and are in the lottery for November.

Tulsa (3-31) had the kind of season everyone would rather forget. The Shock lost 18 games in a row for a WNBA record. Forward Tiffany Jackson won the Gballmag.com Most Improved Player Award by scoring 12.4 ppg. and grabbing 8.4 rpg. Point guard Ivory Latta was No. 2 in scoring at 12.2 ppg., and she recorded 3.2 apg. Rookie center Liz Cambage looked good at times, and the Aussie averaged 11.5 ppg. and 4.7 rpg. while playing 20 mpg. Veteran forward/guard Sheryl Swoopes attempted a comeback from retirement, and she started 28 games, averaging 26.6 mpg. Her 8.2 ppg. and 4.1 rpg. were not Swoopes-like. Forward Kayla Pedersen, the rookie out of Stanford, started 20 games, averaging 6.8 ppg. She is a player of the future for the Shock. Tulsa has the best chance of winning the No. 1 lottery pick, and certainly would be looking to Pedersen's former teammate, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, for help. With Cambage, Pedersen and Ogwumike up front, the Shock has a future.

Getting the No. 1 pick in the draft is very important to building a team. Minnesota, which has three No. 1 draft picks on the current team, is proof that a good draft makes a difference.

MINNESOTA WINS FIRST WNBA TITLE
By Dave Wohlhueter

The Minnesota Lynx brought much joy to the city of Minneapolis this past week. The Lynx swept the Atlanta Dream in three games to win the franchise's first WNBA championship. The decisive game, a 73-67 Minnesota win, came on Friday night, Oct. 7.

Minneapolis needs a little bit of happiness these days. The Twins baseball team had a mediocre year, and the NFL Vikings are next to horrible. And who would want to even remember the NBA season the Timberwolves had in 2010-11. Who knows when they might play again.

Happiness reigns with the Lynx, the darlings of the WNBA in their 13th season of professional basketball. After six consecutive years of not making the playoffs, Minnesota ran through the league during the regular season (27-7), and accomplished a near-perfect postseason, capturing seven games and losing only to San Antonio in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Coach Cheryl Reeve did a marvelous job in molding the team into a tight-knit unit. The ingredients were mixed, starting with 41-year-old center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a veteran of many postseason games, and ending with WNBA Rookie of the Year Maya Moore, the No. 1 draft choice last spring.

In between, Reeve had outstanding young, but seasoned performers in guard/forward Seimone Augustus, forward Rebekkah Brunson and guard Lindsay Whalen. Whalen was named to the All-WNBA first team, while Augustus earned second-team honors. She could have been the league's MVP.

In the Finals, Augustus showed her true team leadership. On Friday night, Augustus led the Lynx in scoring with 16 points, but it was her defensive work that stood out. Augustus was assigned to stop Atlanta's scoring machine, All-WNBA first-team forward Angel McCoughtry.

In Game 2, McCoughtry broke her own WNBA Finals scoring record with 38 points. In the finale, the former Louisville All-American was held to 22 points by Augustus. She made only 9-of-25 shots from the floor as the Dream shot 34.6 percent from the field.

Playing on its home floor with a partisan crowd that included former NBA star Julius Erving, Atlanta went up by seven (19-12) in the first quarter, and led 37-33 at halftime. The score was tied twice in the third period, with the final deadlock at 41-41. Minnesota then closed out the third quarter with an 11-4 run to take a 52-45 margin into the final period.

The Dream wouldn't give up and scored four straight points to bring the deficit back to three. A 7-2 Lynx run pushed the score back up to 59-51. Atlanta made a late charge with five straight points to cut the lead to one (64-63) with 1:17 left in the contest. Minnesota converted four free throws before McCoughtry made a pair of layups, but the Dream could get no closer than four points the rest of the way.

Other top scorers for Minnesota were Moore with 15, Brunson with 13 points, and guard Candice Wiggins with 10. Brunson also grabbed nine rebounds. McWilliams-Franklin had seven points, four rebounds, two blocks, and four assists. She made four free throws in the final 1:07.

Center Erika de Souza was one of two other Atlanta scorers in double figures with 11 points, as Harding had 10 of her 14 points in the first half. de Souza topped the Dream with 15 rebounds.

Game 2, in Minneapolis, was really an NBA-like shootout. Augustus tied McCoughtry's previous record of 36 points set last year, only to see the Atlanta forward tally 38 in this year's game. The Lynx held on for a 101-95 victory.

Augustus shot a blistering 11-for-14 from the field, and was 13-for-16 at the foul line. McCoughtry had 24 points in the first half to help the Dream lead 58-50 at the intermission. Coming out for the second half, the Atlanta all-star must have left her shooting touch in the locker room. She shot just 2-for-13 in the second half.

The Lynx took a 77-76 lead early in the fourth period, its first edge since 20-19, and used a 10-0 spurt to turn an 85-81 deficit, with 5 minutes to go, into a comfortable lead in the closing minutes. Whalen, who had 13 points, converted a 3-pt. play to give Minnesota a 91-85 margin with 2:25 remaining.

The WNBA Finals opened up in Minneapolis before a crowd of 15,000+ hungry fans. The Lynx turned up the heat in the fourth quarter to pull out an 88-74 triumph. Brunson recorded her second double-double of the playoffs with a season-high 26 points and 11 rebounds. Augustus added 22 points, and Moore chipped in 11. Whalen recorded 15 points and six assists.

McCoughtry led Atlanta with 33 points, and Harding added 20. The Dream played without top rebounder (7.5 rpg.) Erika de Souza, who was absent while helping her native Brazil earn a spot in the 2012 Olympics. With de Souza absent, Minnesota enjoyed a 40-28 advantage on the boards, and scored 52 points in the paint to 30 for the visitors.

The visitors led 39-36 at the intermission, and also won this statistic in Games 2 and 3. In the third quarter, the Lynx used a 9-0 run to grab a 51-49 lead. McCoughtry became a one-woman team in the third quarter, scoring from every possible angle, blocking shots and forcing steals. She scored 19 of Atlanta's 23 points in the third period to deadlock the score at 62-all entering the final period.

The fourth quarter belonged to the home team. Atlanta recorded only 12 points, making just 3-of-16 shots, while a hot Minnesota converted 10-of-19 attempts for 26 points.

The Lynx blocked a WNBA Finals record 11 shots, and held Atlanta to 37 percent shooting for the game. McWilliams-Franklin had three blocks, and Moore, Brunson and Augustus had two apiece.

Three players ended up scoring 20 points per game or better during the playoffs. McCoughtry of Atlanta averaged 23.1 ppg., Minnesota's Augustus pumped in 22.0 ppg., and All-WNBA first-teammer Diana Taurasi of Phoenix finished with an even 20.0 ppg.

Three players also averaged double figures in rebounding. Connecticut center Tina Charles grabbed 12.0 rpg., while Atlanta's de Souza pulled down 11.4 rpg. and Brunson of Minnesota 10.8. Brunson had the most rebounds (86).

San Antonio forward Sophia Young had the best field goal percentage of .633 (19x30), while Augustus made the most field goals (69x131, .527). From behind the 3-pt. arc, Atlanta guard Iziane Castro Marques was the most proficient, making 15-of-28 shots for 53.6 percent. Indiana guard Katie Douglas converted the most 3-pointers (17x39, .436). At the foul line, three players were perfect, led by New York guard Cappie Pondexter at 10-for-10. McCoughtry made the most free throws (59x79, .747).

Harding of Atlanta handed out the most assists (47, 5.88 apg.), and ended with the best assists to turnover ratio of 3.62 (47-13). Atlanta's McCoughtry had the most steals with 24 (3.00 spg.). Dream guard Armintie Price had the best steals to turnover ratio of 1.62 (13-8).

Charles of Connecticut had 2.50 blocks per game, while Tammy Sutton-Brown of Indiana had the most blocked shots (11, 1.83 bpg.). McWilliams-Franklin had 10 blocks (1.25 bpg.).

Atlanta's Harding played the most minutes (302, 37.8 mpg.). DeWanna Bonner of Phoenix, de Souza and Sancho Lyttle of Atlanta each had a pair of double-doubles.

That winds up the 15th season for the WNBA, and it certainly was a successful one. Competition was better than ever, and the faithful fans saw a professional brand of basketball that continues to excel.

Dave Wohlhueter is Gball's WNBA and women's college game expert. He is a former Sports Information Director at Cornell University, as well as a member of the school's Hall of Fame. He worked in media relations at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He recently was named the winner of College Sports Information Directors of America's 2007 Bob Kenworthy Good Person Award, which annually is awarded to a CoSIDA member for civic involvement and accomplishments outside the sports information office.




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