Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, center, a Collins Hill graduate celebrates with fans after defeating the Atlanta Dream in game 3 of the WNBA Finals to become the WNBA champions at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth Thursday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
DULUTH — Just before she took the floor for Thursday night’s WNBA Finals, Maya Moore flashed a smile upward from the tunnel.
The gesture acknowledged the handmade poster dangling over the rail, but also the familiar face behind it. Maria Grovner, Moore’s eighth-grade counselor at Creekland Middle, doesn’t get to see the Minnesota Lynx star play in person much, so she relished the interaction prior to Game 3 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
“It’s great to have her so close to home,” said Grovner, her “We Love Maya” sign in hand. “I remember her when she was in high school. She was such a humble person.”
Moore, now one of the biggest basketball stars in the world, gave her hometown fans what they came to see Thursday.
The Collins Hill grad scored a game-high 23 points as her Minnesota Lynx completed a three-game sweep of the home-standing Atlanta Dream with a 86-77 victory in the Duluth venue where Moore won three high school state championships. Afterward, she was named the WNBA Finals MVP.
“She’s used to this place, she’s used to winning here,” current Norcross coach Angie Hembree, who coached Moore at Collins Hill, said from her front-row seat on the baseline. “I think she’s happy to play here. She’s happy. This is her territory. It brings back a lot of good memories for her for sure.”
The last time Moore was on the floor at the Gwinnett arena was for her 2007 high school graduation. Before that, she celebrated three straight state championships on the floor there.
Many of the people who cheered those high school victories were there for the WNBA Finals, too, including a large representation of teachers and faculty members who remember her from both Creekland and Collins Hill.
Some of the most loyal Moore supporters were the “Pink Ladies,” a group of close to 20 Collins Hill staff members (mostly women, but some men) who wore pink T-shirts to every high school game when Moore played. More than half of the “Pink Ladies” were back again for Game 3 to root on their favorite player.
“(Moore) has transcended every expectation,” said one of the “Pink Ladies,” Elaine Carter. “It’s incredible to see her here. In warm-ups, she sensed we were here and we gave her a big smile.”
Just six years, those fans were cheering Moore in a Collins Hill jersey.
She has reached incredible heights since those days, beginning with four consensus All-American honors and a pair of national titles at Connecticut. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft and rookie of the year that same season, she also stars for the Shanxi Xing Rui Flame during the WNBA’s offseason. She won the Chinese league title last season and averaged an astonishing 41.5 points.
She averaged a career-best 18.5 points, third in the WNBA, during the regular season and upped that mark to more than 20 per game in the postseason. She maintained that high level of play Thursday night, winning her second championship in three WNBA seasons.
“She’s a superstar,” Hembree said. “I just get to have fun watching her play.”
Hembree wasn’t alone.
Even the Dream fans cheered at times for Moore, one of the most recognizable faces in women’s basketball and the first female to represent Nike’s famous Jordan Brand. The post-game cheers came in a familiar place, full of familiar faces for Moore.
The only downside to the Lynx victory for Moore’s supporters — it kept them from seeing her Sunday for Game 4 in Gwinnett.
“I would be OK with a Dream win, then we could see her Sunday as well,” Grovner said.
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