MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve would find herself walking through the aisles at her grocery store this offseason when she would be recognized by a fan.
The ensuing conversation would occasionally catch her off guard. Often times instead of congratulations being extended for leading her team to a second straight WNBA finals, the most common question she got was, “What happened?”
After steamrolling through the regular season at 27-7 in pursuit of their second straight championship, the Lynx lost to Indiana in the finals. For a franchise that for years was a league doormat, the newfound expectations have been eye-opening.
“It’s really been interesting,” Reeve said. “I’ve probably been a little more guarded this offseason in that I feel very defensive of our team. Yes we created the expectations and yes we want those expectations.
“But my goodness, we had the second best two-year run in league history and 27-7 and I still have people come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘What happened?'”
Such is life when you have a roster with three Olympians. Such is life when you return four of the five starters from perhaps the most entertaining team in the league. It’s no longer good enough just to make the playoffs. It’s not even good enough to make it to the finals. This franchise, suddenly and startlingly, is being measured by championships.
“We want that. We embrace that,” Reeve said. “At the same time, internally, we’re making sure we celebrate our success. We don’t take anything for granted. What this team has done has been nothing short of greatness. So we celebrate those things and we brush off the external stuff.”
After helping Team USA to the gold medal in London last summer, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen are all back in Minnesota for another run at a title. Leading rebounder Rebekkah Brunson is as well. Only Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the team’s emotional center, is gone from the starting five, replaced by Janel McCarville, who teamed with Whalen in college at Minnesota to lead the Golden Gophers to the Final Four.
Whalen is refreshed after returning home early this winter when her team in Turkey stopped paying her. The time off has helped the hard-nosed point guard gear up for another season, which begins on June 1 against Connecticut.
It turns out that training camp as the defending champions looks noticeably different than training camp as the team that fell just short of a repeat.
“I think that of course have given us all a lot of motivation to come back this year,” Whalen said. “Having gotten so close last year to bringing it back, that gives us extra motivation to get in here and work hard.”
One player who is no stranger to expectations is Moore, who comes from the championship-or-bust college powerhouse UConn. She followed up a celebrated college career with a championship as a rookie, and she’s anxious to get back to the top again.
“We finished one spot away from where we wanted to last year, and everybody knows that,” Moore said. “And I think it’s OK to use that as motivation to want to improve on last year. You also have to be careful to not get too far ahead of yourself. A championship is so far off. You really want to just take advantage of every day.”
In the interim, the Lynx are trying to strike a balance between being disappointed in not finishing the job last year and celebrating everything they did accomplish.
“We don’t want to think, ‘Oh we have to do things completely different,'” Moore said. “We want to be who we are and just crank it up a little bit. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
The road back to the finals figures to be even harder this year with No. 1 pick Brittney Griner and Phoenix standing in their way. But this proud, veteran group thinks it’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s a hungry group,” Reeve said. “There’s a bad taste that’s in our mouths. We’re anxious to get to work.”
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