MINNEAPOLIS – Damiris Dantas’ free throw clanged off the rim, affording Seattle an opportunity to climb further back into a game it had once trailed by 14.
But Janel McCarville thwarted it before it even materialized. The Lynx center wasn’t sure what direction the ball was headed, but the 31-year-old Lynx center summoned enough muscle to squeeze her way in front of Camille Little, snatch the rebound and draw an over-the-back foul.
McCarville’s two successful one-and-one attempts turned a two-point game into a four-point game with 2 minutes, 26 seconds remaining Sunday at the Target Center. "An effort play" was Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve’s coach speak for it afterward.
It wasn’t the Storm’s last chance to make it two wins in three days against the club that knocked them out of last year’s WNBA playoffs. But it was the kind of sequence Minnesota’s gone without too often lately, dropping five of nine games before a 74-69 triumph in front of 8,814 fans Sunday.
That incoming stretch — the franchise’s worst since Olympians Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus joined forces in Minneapolis — began and concluded with losses to the Storm. In between, weaknesses not exposed during the defending league champions 7-0 start began coming to the surface.
One in particular had Reeve fuming during Sunday’s morning shootaround and telling her team it needs to toughen up.
"I’ve said I never want to coach a team that’s not gritty and hard-nosed," Reeve said. "I think having that understanding that if we’re not, and you’re easy to play against, you don’t win."
A few understandable, external factors have contributed to Minnesota’s (12-5) self-diagnosed softness. One of its grittiest forces, power forward Rebekkah Brunson, hasn’t played in a game yet due to a knee injury. Until recently, guard Monica Wright and forward Devereaux Peters were banged up, also with knee injuries. Augustus still is, and sat out Sunday’s win with left-knee bursitis.
Furthermore, there’s no element of surprise available for a franchise that’s won two of the past three WNBA Finals and played in all three of them. Teams like Seattle and Phoenix, the second of which lost 10 straight to Minnesota before felling it twice this campaign, come out with a particular vengeance.
"When you beat a team six times in a row or when you beat a team 14 times in a row, they get sick of losing to you," Reeve said," so their sense of urgency goes to a really, really high level. So if we don’t go up to that level, we can’t win."
Said McCarville: "Knowing it and having it actually happen are two different things. You can’t really prepare for it."
It happened in losses to Seattle (twice), Atlanta and Phoenix (twice). Even in two wins against Los Angeles and a pair of home victories over Washington and Indiana, Minnesota lacked resolution but was bailed out by prolific shooting.
That wasn’t the case Sunday against the Storm (7-11). Whalen and Augustus shot a combined 7-for-23, and the Lynx made 43.8 percent of their field-goal attempts.
The desired determination level, though, was in full supply.
"It felt good to kind of grind out a hard one that took everything we had so that our team understands that this is how we should feel every night," said Reeve, whose squad now sits a half-game back of Phoenix for the Western Conference’s top spot.
It was evident in Monica Wright’s play, particularly on defense. Making her first 2014 start, in Augustus’ stead, she forced a steal and drew a charge on two of Seattle’s first three possessions, clamped down on point guard Sue Bird in the closing minutes and finished with four assists and a pair of takeaways.
McCarville provided it, too, scoring inside and out for a game-high 22 points, her most in a Lynx uniform. Moore chipped in in ways besides point production, pulling down six eight rebounds and dishing out seven assists, both team highs. Whalen had a quiet night but hit a key 18-foot jumper with 1:14 remaining that gave the Lynx a 69-66 lead.
Even with that, the Lynx were in for a tussle. Bird — who Sunday became the first player in WNBA history to tally 4,000 points, 2,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career — orchestrated a 19-8 run spanning the final two frames, and the Storm would’ve led 70-69 with 20 seconds to go if not for Angel Robinson’s point-blank layup miss.
So Minnesota’s still balancing itself under the weight of that proverbial target with which it’s saddled.
"It’s going to be a dogfight," said Moore, who scored 14 points on 4 of 12 shooting Sunday. "Embracing how hard it’s going to be and keeping our minds can be very, very tough."