- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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And so it came down to this again. So much can change for an elite athlete in eight years. Injuries happen, other top players emerge, your focus might drift, life tosses some bricks your way along with the roses.
Yet here on a Sunday afternoon in September 2010 in Arizona, quite some time and distance away from when they were still kids who'd magically come together to form an unbeatable team, Seattle's Sue Bird and Swin Cash and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi were the principle players in yet another hardwood drama.
Taurasi made spectacular shots look routine, as she's known for. Cash played with that fierce sense of purpose, as she's known for. And Bird came through in the clutch, as she's know for.
Seattle advanced to the WNBA finals with a come-from-way-behind, all-guts 91-88 victory in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Another scintillating chapter in post-collegiate UConn Huskies lore? You better believe it was.
The score-tying shot? That was Cash's, as she found her spot on the block, and then Bird found her with a perfect bounce pass.
The winning shot? That was Bird's, an icey 3-pointer that was as true as her seven misses earlier in the game were off.
The final shot? That was Taurasi's, a last-chance 3-pointer that missed being her eighth make from long range in the game.
The Pennsylvanian, the New Yorker, the Californian. They all ended up in Storrs, Conn., comprising three-fifths of the starting lineup of the team many consider the best in women's college hoops history: 39-0 UConn in 2001-02, when Bird and Cash were seniors and Taurasi a sophomore.
In the eight years since that championship, their paths have diverged, merged, intersected, split, crossed. And they are all still at the top of the sport. Combined, they have five WNBA titles and two Olympic championships.
They've played as teammates and rivals. They'll be the former in a few weeks, as all three are expected to be on Team USA trying to win the World Championship. Taurasi will get to work with their former coach, Geno Auriemma, on that quest before Bird and Cash will.
Because Taurasi's WNBA season is over. For Bird and Cash, their hopes for the 2010 WNBA title live on.
"I know I didn't want to play Phoenix in Game 3; that would have been very hard even on our home court," said Bird, who also made a key defensive stop against point-guard counterpart Temeka Johnson and grabbed a rebound to set up the Storm's last possession. "So the best part about hitting that shot is that the series is over, and we have a week to prepare."
Indeed, the Storm earned their spot in the WNBA finals before the East Conference finals had even tipped off for Game 1. Now the Storm, who rested their starters a bit over the last couple of weeks of the regular season after securing home-court advantage through the playoffs, will be able to come in to the finals as fresh as they could possibly hope to be.
That's especially good for Bird, who has barely sat down in the Storm's four postseason games. Sunday, she was on the court for nearly 37 minutes, getting 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds. What sets Bird apart as a great point guard is that she's the consummate playmaker who has always had the confidence to shoot in the most critical times.
On the Storm's last possession, Tanisha Wright dribbled away about 21 seconds before passing to Bird, who at that point was 4-of-13 from the floor. Yet was it any surprise that her shot to win the series swished? Not if you've been watching Bird for the last decade.
Of course, had you turned off this game midway through the third quarter, with Phoenix up by 19, we hate to tell you but you blew it. You missed the best part.
Well let's amend that. Not if you're a Mercury fan. For Phoenix, the last 15 minutes were the worst part. The defending champions in many ways put an appropriate, if thoroughly unsatisfying capper on their odd summer. Just as they more often than not couldn't close the deal during a 15-19 regular season, they weren't able to shut the door on the Storm to stay alive.
Instead, Seattle finished a 7-0 sweep against the Mercury this season, with Sunday's game being the Storm's finest Houdini act of the summer. And although Bird had the last word, it was Cash who put on the most magnificent show. She was pulling rabbits out of hats and sawing people in half all over the floor.
Cash had her top game of 2010 on Sunday: 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals. When the Storm looked dead, Cash was the one who refused to let them die. She had 12 of Seattle's 30 points in the turnaround fourth quarter.
Cash won titles in Detroit in 2003 and 2006. Her relationship with then-Shock coach Bill Laimbeer deteriorated in 2007, when Detroit fell to Taurasi's Mercury in the WNBA Finals. Cash then was traded to Seattle, where she has continued her pro career as a dependable and sometimes spectacular starter.
Sunday was a reminder of what Cash can do at her best; in a game that featured the league MVP last year (Taurasi) and this year (Lauren Jackson), Cash was the afternoon's MVP.
Which is not to slight the other two. Jackson wasn't quite as dominant as she was in the opener, having to sit a bit Sunday with foul trouble. But she still had 20 points and eight rebounds. And her 3-point play -- on an assist from Cash -- with 1:15 left in the game was the moment when you began to suspect that the Mercury were not going to hold off the Storm's surge.
Taurasi, as everyone expected, rebounded with a vengeance from her clunker game in the series opener. Sunday, she had 28 points and, if anything, probably should have taken even more shots.
Now, Team USA's opponents in the Czech Republic will have to pay the price for the frustration Taurasi no doubt feels over how the Mercury fared this season. Expect her to have a huge impact on the world championship after losing her first WNBA playoff series.
Meanwhile, the frustration Bird has felt in the past five years with the Storm losing in the postseason's first round has largely -- but not entirely -- been assuaged. There's one more chapter to go.
Taurasi will have to watch -- annoyed, no doubt, but probably also with some pride. After all, if she can't win the WNBA title, you figure she'd want another couple of former Huskies to do it.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.