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The refs didn’t cost the Lynx a WNBA championship

But poor officiating did mar what might have been the best game in the 20-year history of the WNBA.

Maya Moore
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Maya Moore

Sylvia Fowles cried at her locker. Maya Moore’s eyes glistened as she spoke in soft, short sentences. Lindsay Whalen circled the locker room to hug her teammates one by one before taking a seat at her stall, inconsolable. Janel McCarville, Whalen’s University of Minnesota teammate from long ago, pulled up a stool and draped a big arm around Whalen’s shoulders.

Nothing in sports hurts more than coming up short in a championship game you know in your heart you should have won. Thursday night’s 77-76 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in the deciding Game 5 of the WNBA finals, at a sold-out and deafening Target Center, was exactly that. The Lynx sought a record-tying fourth WNBA title and the league’s first back-to-back championships in more than a decade. They left the court stunned and disappointed.

Friday morning, the WNBA admitted game officials missed a critical 24-second violation on the Sparks with 1:14 to play that should have negated a basket by Nneka Ogwumike, the league’s Most Valuable Player. Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve drew national attention for questioning how officials could miss that call, which was reviewable, as well as a nonreviewable backcourt violation late in Game 4 that benefited the Lynx. The league conceded the refs blew that one, too. Reeve said players on both teams deserved better.

She’s right.

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Officiating didn’t cost the Lynx a championship. Far from it. The Lynx lost because the Sparks out-hustled and outplayed them in the second half, shooting 56.4 percent while crushing the Lynx on the boards, 19-9. Defense and rebounding have been Lynx staples throughout their six seasons of WNBA dominance, and Thursday night the Sparks beat them at their strengths. “They turned the tables on us,” Reeve said. 

The Sparks grabbed 14 offensive rebounds on the night, the last two on L.A.’s final possession, when Ogwumike’s putback provided the winning points with 3.1 seconds to play. Eight second-chance points by the Sparks in the fourth quarter, all by Ogwumike and finals MVP Candace Parker, decided the game. Not one bad call.

“It’s unfortunate,” said forward Rebekkah Brunson, who was denied a record fifth WNBA title. “We knew the keys to the game would be defense and rebounding. I feel like in the last five minutes we weren’t getting the stops we needed. Then it came down to a rebound. But we knew those were going to be the keys. We just didn’t get it done.”

That the media-savvy Reeve chose a national platform to go off on WNBA officiating isn’t surprising. Reeve advocates for causes she believes in. Going into the postseason, anticipating greater media attention and ESPN’s presence, Reeve planned to speak out about at least one. During the Phoenix semifinal series, Reeve chose the press conference where she accepted the WNBA’s Coach of the Year award to lobby media outlets nationwide for greater coverage of women’s sports.

Coach Cheryl Reeve
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Coach Cheryl Reeve

Thursday night, Reeve congratulated the Sparks and complimented her own players before addressing the officiating. She never blamed the loss on the officials. Neither did her players.

The WNBA struggles to hire enough good officials because the best ones, worn out by lengthy college, NBA and D-League seasons, prefer taking the summer off. Plus, the WNBA pays refs $500 to $900 per game, far less than NCAA men’s Division 1 ($1,500 to $3,000 per game) and the NBA ($150,000 to $550,000 per season). NBA refs are full-time; college and WNBA refs work as contractors. 

This frustrates coaches and players as much as the league’s perceived indifference to the problem. This isn’t the first time the WNBA admitted its officials screwed up; Reeve was fined last year for calling some of the mistakes “embarrassing.” That different crews, presumably the league’s best, botched rules calls in back-to-back games of a highly-competitive final series is a bad look for a league struggling for mainstream acceptance in a male-dominated landscape.

Regardless, the Lynx will carry this hurt deep into the off-season. L.A. Coach Brian Agler, the original Lynx coach, called this Reeve’s best and deepest team. Reeve adroitly spotted reserves Natasha Howard, Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Anna Cruz and McCarville enough minutes to ease the burden on her basket of dependables – Moore, Brunson, Fowles, and especially Seimone Augustus and Whalen, who finished the previous season limping and exhausted.

It paid off spectacularly. Even with the oldest opening-night roster in the league (average age: 30.86 years), the 28-6 Lynx set franchise records for victories, broke the league record for longest winning streak to start a season (13 games), and earned the overall No. 1 playoff seed. This after WNBA general managers, in their annual preseason poll, tabbed Phoenix as the league’s best team, based on Diana Taurasi returning from a year off.

Funny how predictions go. The Mercury barely made the playoffs, and the Lynx dispatched them in the semifinals in three straight.

“Goodness, if I really believed all that I read about the Minnesota Lynx, I would have come to training camp equipped with rocking chairs and canes,” Reeve said facetiously at her Coach of the Year press conference. “This is not like football, where you turn 27 and you’re done. We have great players who take care of themselves, are smart, and have an intelligence about the game. When you do that, you can play for a long, long time. This one was for all the people who thought we were done.”

Along the way, the Lynx initiated a national conversation to improve relations between police and people of color. The black T-shirts memorializing Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five slain Dallas police officers inspired similar actions by other WNBA teams. At the ESPY Awards, LeBron James and fellow NBA stars called for dialog and healing. Athletes linking arms and kneeling for the national anthem are, in their own way, furthering the Lynx’s message.

Lindsay Whalen
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Lindsay Whalen

A fourth WNBA title, tying the old Houston Comets for the most in league history, and back-to-back crowns loomed as the season’s crowning achievements. The Lynx business staff ordered 17,000 T-shirts for Game 5 and still didn’t have enough for the 19,423 who showed up, fifth-most to see a WNBA finals game. (Detroit twice drew 22,076 to the Palace of Auburn Hills, in 2003 and 2007.) The Target Center was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think, much less a 24-second buzzer going off. The folks calling this the best game in the 20-year history of the league will get no argument from anyone at Target Center that night. 

And that’s the shame of it all. The deepest Lynx team, its stars rested and ready to go, with a frantic crowd begging for the accustomed magic, couldn’t grab a rebound or make a defensive stop when it had to. A season of significant achievement ended with no banner, no parade. 

So what’s next? Everyone except McCarville and rookie Keisha Hampton is under contract for next year. Reeve noted Augustus and Brunson will not play overseas this winter, taking their lead from Whalen, who returned rejuvenated after a winter of rest and conditioning in Minneapolis. The dependables aren’t getting any younger, but they love playing together. They’re determined to extend their careers with the Lynx as long as possible. 

“I know they’re getting older a little bit, but they’re going to be extremely competitive,” Agler said. “It wouldn’t shock me at all if they were right back in the same spot next year. Maya Moore … is as good as there is, and probably will stay at that level and make everybody rise to her level as time goes on.”

The night ended with one sweet, poignant moment. Parker sought her first WNBA title as a memorial to her former Tennessee coach, Pat Summit. Postgame, Agler produced his smartphone and played “Rocky Top,” the song most associated with the Volunteers. A tearful Parker leaned over and gave Agler a hug.

Not far away, the home locker room featured a different kind of tears.