MINNEAPOLIS — Seimone Augustus was a 13-year-old girl when she watched the Houston Comets win the first WNBA championship in 1997.
The Comets would win the first four titles in the league, proving to basketball-loving girls across the country that there was a place for them to pursue their dreams. And Augustus couldn’t get enough of them.
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Two decades later, Augustus and the Minnesota Lynx stand on the precipice of joining those trailblazing women. A victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Thursday night would give the Lynx their fourth title, tying them with the Comets for most in league history.
"That’s just mind-boggling to me," Augustus said. "We grew up watching the Houston Comets and those wonderful women the kind of set the precedent for what WNBA basketball is all about. They’ve motivated and inspired us. Now we could be the new Houston Comets of this era if we do what we need to do.
They know it will not be easy. Through the first four games of the series, the Sparks and Lynx have pushed each other as far as they can go, which is exactly what the league hoped would happen when it changed the playoff format to seed teams based on record and not geography. Los Angeles won Game 1 in Minnesota and Game 3 back home. The Lynx have responded to each loss with a victory of their own to find themselves right back where they were a year ago — needing a win in Game 5 at Target Center to bring home a title.
Last year the Lynx dispatched the Indiana Fever in front of 17,000 fans, then partied all night long at Prince’s house to celebrate title No. 3. Another raucous crowd is expected this time around in what would be the crowning achievement for the league’s model franchise, first back-to-back championships in the league since the Sparks repeated in 2002.
"You couldn’t ask for anything more," said Lynx star Maya Moore, who scored 31 points in Game 4 to keep Minnesota alive. "It’s been definitely a dramatic series and one that will go down as one of the best, I think."
The Lynx have been here five times in the last six years, but this has been their most difficult finals test. League MVP Nneka Oqwumike, Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver present a star-studded trio to rival Minnesota’s, and they have been every bit their equal through four games.
The Sparks are chasing ghosts of their own. A victory Thursday night would give them their first championship since Lisa Leslie led them to their second in a row in 2002, and that may have played into their defeat on Sunday. They were so eager to finish the series on their home floor that coach Brian Agler said they have turned their focus in the wrong direction, and it cost them.
"I think everyone out there was playing to win a championship and not to beat the team we were playing," Ogwumike said. "I told coach yesterday in the airport that’s exactly how I felt when he put it in that perspective. Having that with a good balance of focus and awareness and effort is exactly what we need."
Afterward, Lakers legend Magic Johnson addressed the crestfallen players, telling them to put the loss behind them and be ready because the series was not over.
"You could hear a pin drop," Toliver said. "Everybody was just really locked in to what he was saying. When he’s talking, everybody listens and that was exactly what we needed to hear in that moment because in that moment, your emotions are all over the place. He kind of just brought everybody back in and refocused everyone."