UNCASVILLE — All-Star Game or no All-Star Game, a huge moment and a big stage or a small moment and nobody else around on the UConn campus, Tina Charles knows the Maya Moore look.
“It’s like she’s possessed,” Charles said after Moore decided the 2015 WNBA All-Star Game was hers Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena and promptly made it that way. “She gets that face, that demeanor. I’ve been with her on the court, during practice, she’s just a great player.
“I don’t think she knows any other style of play except that one way of going hard. She’s the ultimate competitor. She always wants to win in everything she does.”
“Even little things like us going to class at UConn and her being the first one to get there even though we left the apartment at the same time,” Charles said. “Little things, Maya just loves winning.”
It started with a timeout with 2:51 to go. It was a one-point game. That’s how sharp and focused Moore is. After the game, she remembered it was exactly 2:51.
“Maya’s going, ‘We’ve got to win this! We’ve got to win this!” West coach Sandy Brondello of the Phoenix Mercury said.
“These are the moments that are fun as a player,” Moore said.
So there was Moore a minute after that timeout, her West team down 106-105, and it was as if she just hit this internal switch. It is the switch Michael Jordan hit when it mattered most. The switch Derek Jeter hit on October nights in the Bronx. The switch Tom Brady hits in the final couple of minutes.
It is the switch that screams “I am great and now is the time to show it.” It is the switch of brilliance.
With raised defensive arms closing in on her, Moore hit a 24-foot three-point shot from deep, deep, deep in the right corner with 1:51 left. After a Brittney Griner block of a Kelsey Bone shot, Nneka Ogwumike found Moore driving to the hoop with 90 seconds remaining After Shoni Schimmel missed a three, there was Moore again for a 15-foot jumper and the free throw after the foul by Angel McCoughtry with 69 seconds left.
“It was a brilliant play call,” Moore said smiling. “It was [Danielle Robinson] or Kayla [McBride], ‘let’s run the floppy.’ Came off a screen, hit an ‘and one’ jumper, it was the nail in the coffin to seal the win.'”
In 42 seconds, Moore scored eight unanswered points to give her a WNBA All-Star Game-record 30 points and most valuable player award. In 42 seconds, Moore turned a one-point deficit into a seven-point lead en route to a 117-112 West victory. In 42 seconds, the Minnesota Lynx forward reminded us, in case we were wondering, who’s the best women’s basketball player in the world in 2015.
“If I was going to do it in front of fans other than Minnesota, I’d want it be here in Connecticut,” Moore said. “These fans are near and dear to my heart. They also got a great performance from one of their players, with Alex Bentley. They double-dipped. Is that allowed?”
As she said she’d do, Griner had a dunk, a three-pointer and a block, and she did it during a five-minute stretch in the third quarter en route to a strong 21-point game for the West. The Sun’s Bentley had a hoot. She shot 9-for-14, including five three-pointers, treating the home fans to 23 points and a bunch of fun. It was an All-Star Game played the way one should be played, lots of offense, lots of skill on display.
Charles, now with the Liberty, won a WNBA MVP with the Sun. She won national titles with Moore at UConn. She knows it better than anyone. She knew the Maya look.
“Maya is an amazing, amazing athlete,” Brondello said. “In crunch time, we’ve all seen her do it her whole career in college and the pros … she closes games better than anyone else.”
The term “best” deals in absolute superlatives, of course. It is at once argumentative and leans toward the latest great performance. Sobriety is in order. So we tread carefully here. There are a handful of players who could lay claim to be the best ever. There has been no greater winner than Diana Taurasi. Lisa Leslie, when she was at the top of her post game, was the best player in the WNBA. It is interesting that Moore on Saturday joined Leslie as the only players to win regular season, Finals and All-Star Game MVPs.
From a skill level, I submit, right now, that Moore is playing the game at a higher level than it ever has been played in the women’s game. And here’s the thing: At 26, she still appears to be on an upward arc. It’s scary.
“Maya is incredible,” said Seattle’s Sue Bird, the former UConn great, who started for the West. “She can do so much. If you’re a top player, you can probably name five, six, seven in this league who are exceptional. Everyone can kind of shoot, everybody can dribble, everybody can do this and that.
“Maya has been able to separate herself with her motor. The way she plays, how hard she plays every single play. She’s already hitting shots left and right. She’s already making amazing plays left and right. But now she’s constantly on the move, constantly playing hard. She’s so hard to guard. That’s where she separates herself. She’s nonstop. Nonstop.”
Next year is an Olympic year. There is no All-Star Game. So for Tamika Catchings, the wonderful player from Tennessee and the Indiana Fever who has announced she’s retiring after 2016, this is her last of a record 10 All-Star appearances. It’s worth mentioning that in July 2009, Catchings was asked if she had to pick one player to start a franchise, who would it be and why?
“I’m going to go to the college game on this one,” Catchings said. “I’d pick Maya Moore from the UConn Huskies because she’s going to be a phenomenal WNBA player, and I know people are going to love her.”
This was after Moore’s sophomore season. She was the best player in college. She went on to become one of the nine players to win an NCAA championship, WNBA championship and Olympic gold medal. She won the WNBA MVP last season, and she’s better this season. She seems to get better every season.
One minute, Moore is running around, running people off picks, being Ray Allen in search of a three-pointer. The next, she’s leading a fastbreak down the court. She’s on the move on defense, too, anticipating, roving. She’s second in WNBA scoring, first in three-pointers, fourth in steals, seventh in assists.
“That three-point shot, every time she shoots it, I feel like it’s going in,” said East coach Pokey Chatman of the Chicago Sky. “The thing about it, it’s so effortless. She’s shooting it from 22 feet, but it looks like she’s shooting it from 12. She gathers, doesn’t need a lot of space to get it off.
“Each year she’s adding things, midrange, the handle, becoming a better passer. That’s what the great ones do. Her fitness, I remember seeing a piece I saw about changing her eating, eating clean and how that impacted her game. That’s why she can probably play 40 minutes in overdrive.”
This has been a rather amazing summer for female athletes. Dating to last year, Serena Williams has won four tennis majors in a row, a Serena Slam. With the U.S. Open coming up, Williams has a chance to win all four majors in 2015. A few weeks back, the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup. Carli Lloyd’s hat trick against Japan put her on top of the world.
“Those are two of the biggest stages and names that you can wish for in sports,” Moore said. “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because I think we’re all connected. The greater sports world gets to celebrate more things because of the awesome year that we’ve had. It’s only going to get better.”
That’s because Maya Moore keeps getting better. Tina Charles and the rest of us can see it on her face.