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Maya Moore excited for WNBA Finals in Gwinnett

Minnesota’s Maya Moore (23), a Collins Hill grad, shoots against the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the WNBA conference finals Sept. 26 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Marilyn Indahl/USA Today Sports)

Minnesota’s Maya Moore (23), a Collins Hill grad, shoots against the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the WNBA conference finals Sept. 26 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Marilyn Indahl/USA Today Sports)

While her mission is making a new memory, Maya Moore knows she won’t be able to stop herself from looking back at old ones next week.

After the WNBA Finals’ first two games in Minnesota today and Tuesday, the season-ending showcase returns for the Atlanta Dream’s home games with Moore’s Minnesota Lynx. Those games won’t be in the team’s usual home, Philips Arena, thanks to a prior booking of “Disney on Ice: Let’s Celebrate,!” instead shifting to the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

It’s a venue Moore knows better than any player in the finals.

She played in four straight high school state championship games in the Duluth facility from 2004-07, winning championships her final three seasons as a Collins Hill Eagle. She also graduated from high school at the arena, the last time she’s set foot inside it.

“I thought it was really cool (to play the finals in Gwinnett),” Moore said. “I had no idea that was even a possibility. The arena is really special for basketball in the metro area and it’s a really appropriate place for the WNBA championship. … My senior year of high school, the last game of my high school career, was played there. There are so many memories there. I’m excited to be coming back.”

Plenty has changed for Moore since the last time she walked into the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Back then she was the nation’s No. 1 prep player, a Connecticut commitment and Georgia prep basketball legend.

Moore returns this week as a four-time UConn All-American, a WNBA champion (she won as a rookie two years ago), an Olympic gold medalist and maybe the most recognizable face of women’s basketball on the planet, both for her talent and for being the first female to sign with Nike’s Jordan Brand.

She is finishing up her third, and so far most successful, season in the WNBA, averaging a career-best 18.5 points during the regular season (third in the league). Her 21.5 playoff scoring average, on 52.4 percent shooting, is second in the WNBA.

“I felt like I really came into my own a lot more this season,” the 24-year-old said. “It was my third year as a pro, so I was more comfortable with the rhythm of life as a pro. I’m more comfortable with my life on and off the court. I’ve learned how to take care of my body and just be more efficient on and off the court.”

Moore’s home life throughout the year is sliced into thirds — the WNBA season, the overseas schedule and the offseason.

She lives in Minnesota during her Lynx season and spends the overseas schedule in China with her team, the Shanxi Xing Rui Flame. She led her team to the Chinese league title last season with a whopping 41.5-point scoring average, which included a 60-point game.

In between her two seasons, she is back in Atlanta at her home in Smyrna.

Her family and friends in metro Atlanta likely will give the Lynx plenty of fans against the home-standing Lynx. Game 3 of the best-of-five series is Thursday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, then Game 4 in Duluth (if necessary) is Sunday, Oct. 13.

“I have a lot of family from out of town coming down for the games, too,” Moore said.

There likely will be some surprises for her in the crowd, too. Collins Hill supporters, friends or others who she doesn’t get to see as often as she would like.

Those faces, along with the Arena at Gwinnett Center itself, will have Moore reminiscing.

“Absolutely, it will bring back memories of high school,” she said of returning to her hometown arena. “In high school, some of the most exciting times were there. The middle of second semester, wearing your warm-ups to class and everybody’s making posters at school. You can’t think about anything else but the games. It was an exciting time to be a high school athlete.

“And to have as much success as we had as a team at Collins Hill, we made history every year. It just got better and better.”

Thus far, Moore’s WNBA career as done the same.

She won the league crown in 2011, becoming just the second player ever to win rookie of the year and a WNBA title in the same season. During the WNBA offseason, she also has won two championships, the first with Ros Casares in the Euroleague and the latest in China. Add in her two NCAA titles at UConn and the 2012 Olympics, and she has six substantial team victories since high school.

Despite all of those, Moore still holds some of her early championships in high regard, particularly the three state championships with Collins Hill. She won all three in the Arena at Gwinnett Center, where she returns this week.

“It’s going to be fun,” Moore said. “I know I’m going to have a handful, hopefully more than a handful, of family and friends there. That they’ll be able to see the game in person is exciting. And to have some familiarity with where we’re playing is nice, too. I have so many great memories from metro Atlanta and so many great memories in that arena. I’m excited about it.”