MINNEAPOLIS — The WNBA Finals are still almost two months away, ladies.
No one bothered to tell the league’s two past two champions that Saturday, as Minnesota and Indiana engaged in an affair reminiscent of their rough-and-tumble, seesaw collisions in last October’s crowning series. Not until the latest moment of crunch time did the Lynx edge away from the team that crushed their back-to-back title dreams then.
“Typical Indiana game, as we knew it would be,” coach Cheryl Reeve said.
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Not a bad occasion, then, for arguably the game’s best all-around female player to put forth inarguably the top offensive performance of her young professional career.
There have been several Maya Moore takeovers this season, but none as integral as the third-year forward’s 35-point, 15-of-21 field-goal evening at the Target Center. Not only did she produce from every imaginable spot on the floor, but Moore converted buckets at moments when doing so became most imperative.
“Anything she was throwing at the basket went in,” forward Janel McCarville said. “If it didn’t go in, it came right back to her, and she threw it up again.”
Such closing power wasn’t present during the Lynx’s 3-1 series defeat in last year’s finals. Virtually the same Indiana team, minus a knee injury-plagued Erin Phillips, came into Minneapolis still boasting a penchant for keeping scores low and opposing teams’ trainers busy.
The Fever did well in their quest to answer Minnesota (20-7) scoring jaunts, the likes of which only two teams have been able to best at the Target Center this season. They made 10 of 20 3-pointers — three each from Shavonte Zellous and Tamika Catchings — and took full advantage of Lynx miscues.
Moore just did better to counterpunch.
“They’re not going to go away,” Moore said of the Fever, who needed a win to move out of the Eastern Conference’s fourth and final playoff spot. “You’re gonna have to be tough. You’re going to have to be focused.
“That’s what we did, for the most part.”
Moore’s career-high point total is the highest of any WNBA player this season. More prominently, it came at a time when Reeve wondered if her team had fully emerged from a disheartening stretch where it dropped four of five games.
She received her answer Saturday night.
“We thought it was a really important win for our team in that it required execution,” Reeve said. “It required toughness. I think all those things, and not to say that we haven’t had those in other games, but this one just felt different.
“It’s exactly what I’d hoped for.”
A Lynx lead that had never stood at more than eight evaporated by the fourth quarter’s five-minute mark, when Indiana guard Jeanette Pohlen hit a 3-pointer from the left corner — the fifth time the Fever (12-15) rallied to knot the score.
It would be the last occasion, as Moore connected from the top of the key on the last of three 3s to give Minnesota the advantage for good with 4 minutes, 54 seconds to go. She went on to finish with 11 points in the fourth quarter and snare a game-sealing steal at half-court with 32 seconds left, setting off a feverish celebration from 9,504 fans clad in pink for the Lynx’s breast cancer awareness night.
Earlier in the final period, she gathered her own rebound — one of eight boards total — and somehow got a 10-foot jumper to bounce up off the front of the rim and fall through. She then stole a pass at midcourt and raced the other way for a lay-in.
It was that kind of night.
“I definitely gave a ‘Thank you, Lord,’ fist-pump when that ball dropped,” Moore said of her putback jumper.
But Moore’s career evening wasn’t merely a product of providence. Reeve’s game plan coming in was to utilize her and guards Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus in the paint against the Fever’s scrappy but smaller defenders.
It worked, especially in the fourth quarter, when 6-foot Augustus posted up 5-8 counterpart Briann January en route to seven final-frame points. Shooting a career-best 43.7 percent from 3 coming in, Moore benefited from several high-percentage shots that opened up her outside looks.
“It’s really fun when I can go inside-out,” Moore said. “I think it gives me a pretty good feeling when I can get inside. Your touch feels better when you can score close to the basket and then bring it back out.”
She didn’t do it all on her own, as fellow starters McCarville (12 points and five assists), Augustus (17 points), Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson all played 30 minutes or more. The Lynx bench scored just four points, while usually reliable guard Monica Wright never found a rhythm off the bench.
“Things just got to the point in the second half where I liked who was out there,” Reeve said. “Nobody asked to come out. They wanted to be out there. They were playing well. … I didn’t have a burning desire to go to our bench, to be frank.”
With her top five fully healthy and capable of logging such big minutes, Reeve’s confidence that its woes of the past couple weeks are in the rearview mirror grew substantially. Her bunch reclaimed the league’s best record and inched a game-and-a-half ahead of Los Angeles for first place in the Western Conference standings.
The always fiery Reeve even had a message for ESPN, which opted to broadcast Eastern Conference frontrunner Chicago’s 11-point victory over Atlanta rather than come to the Twin Cities as its original schedule dictated.
“I thought that was a great game for TV,” deadpanned Reeve, who oversaw back-to-back victories for the first time since Aug. 4 and Aug. 6.
Instead, relatively few witnessed Moore’s gem. She hit 3 of 4 long-range tries and added a team-high four steals. She even blocked a pair of shots.
There were blemishes, including three of her team’s 14 turnovers and a video-reviewed flagrant foul when she pivoted and caught Zellous’ face with her elbow.
Mere blips, all told.
A humble, modest superstar since her college days in Connecticut, Moore did her best to downplay any individual praise on what’s a huge feather in her MVP candidacy cap.
“I just wasn’t trying to think too much,” she said. “I was just trying to play and stay in the flow of our offense.”
But even she admitted there’s nothing quite like knocking down shot after shot after shot, especially in a scenario such as this.
“When the ball’s going in, you can’t help but be confident,” Moore said. “The key when you are feeling good is to stay composed and stay within yourself.”
With her masterpiece complete, Moore waited almost 20 minutes while fans bid on her light pink, game-worn No. 23 jersey. By the time she was able to speak with reporters, her name had netted $6,750 that will go to the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation.
Just one more score for Moore.
“It’s one thing I was telling (my teammates),” said Catchings, who led the Fever with 22 points and 10 rebounds. “If you don’t find anybody, find Maya.”