DULUTH, Ga. -- Because Game 3 was so competitive, the Lynx couldn't start celebrating until there were mere seconds left.
But with a few ticks left on the clock, during a timeout, the party started. Assistant coach Jim Petersen hugged Lindsay Whalen. Seimone Augustus got the bum rush from a slew of teammates, then was enveloped. Maya Moore jumped up and down. Ready-made WNBA championship hats and T-shirts were quietly passed toward the Minnesota bench.
Thursday, in their ersatz home gym and their collective backs against the wall, the Atlanta Dream fought hard, ceding runs then clawing back.
But the Lynx had too much.
After an 86-77 victory at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, the Lynx had swept the WNBA Finals and polished off a perfect 7-0 run through the playoffs. They were league champions for the second time in three years and it was time to smile, hug, scream and yell.
"This is so much fun, too much fun," said Whalen, drinking from a cup on one side of her mouth, out of a bottle on the other. "In 2011, after we won, it was one of the best nights of my life. I wanted to have that same feeling, that same celebration. This is unbelievable."
As it has been so often this season, the title-clinching game was a collective effort. All five starters scored in double figures, led by Moore who was playing only miles from where she went to high school and in the arena where she won three state championships. Tough from start to finish, Moore scored 23 points before she hoisted the series MVP trophy, one she swore she'd share.
And why not? Janel McCarville had 10 points, eight in the first quarter. Whalen scored eight of her 15 in the second. Rebekkah Brunson, battling all night, got 10 of her 15 in the third. Seimone Augustus had eight of her 14 in the fourth.
The rallying cry all season was to get back a title that slipped away in a four-game loss in the 2012 finals. Done.
The fact that Game 3 was tight after two consecutive 25-point blowouts made it even better.
"I'm glad Atlanta didn't come out and lay down," Augustus said. "They fought. They showed heart."
Tiffany Hayes and Alex Bentley came off the Atlanta bench to score a combined 38 points. The Dream played tough defense.
The Lynx were leading 47-42 with 7:50 left in the third quarter when they made the game's signature run. Over the next four-plus minutes, they managed a 13-2 spurt that started with a Brunson free throw and ended with Monica Wright's three-point play with 3:20 left in the quarter.
Once again Atlanta fought back, to within 10 entering the fourth and to within seven four times in the fourth quarter, but they got no closer.
Then with three seconds left, it started. A stage was quickly erected. Owner Glen Taylor hoisted the championship trophy and Moore the MVP award.
Two titles in three years.
"Both are special," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, absolutely drenched. "The common denominator was we had to prove people wrong. Last year we had an opportunity (vs. Indiana in the finals) and we let it slip away. That was motivation. We got here, we played great in the finals. We were determined it wouldn't happen again."
But what about the first-timers? McCarville was out of the league when the Lynx won in 2011. This time, united with former Gophers teammate Whalen, she got to experience this for herself. It was her between-the-legs pass to Brunson after a steal was the signature moment of that third-quarter run.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere but here," she said, "that's for damn sure."
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