Covering the WNBA Finals, espnW’s Voepel captures league’s strides

 Mechelle Voepel interviewing Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve on Monday between Games 1 and 2 of the WNBA Finals. (Photo courtesy Mechelle Voepel)
Mechelle Voepel interviews Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve during an off day in the course of the 2015 WNBA Finals. (Photo courtesy Mechelle Voepel)

espnW reporter Mechelle Voepel has covered the WNBA since the beginning – nearly 20 years — and has seen the league grow from startup to an established destination for top professional women’s basketball players.

Game 4 of the WNBA Finals tips off tonight (ESPN, 8:30 ET) between the Minnesota Lynx and host Indiana Fever; the Lynx lead the series, 2-1, and with another victory could clinch their third title in five seasons. From Indianapolis, Voepel chatted with Front Row about her experiences covering the league.

How has the league grown since the first game in June 1997?
I have a clear memory of that first game, pitting New York against Los Angeles. Since then, the WNBA has had its ups and downs, but it’s been such a pleasure to watch the growth on so many levels. The players are more skilled, and despite the overseas commitments that many have to increase their earnings, they are in better shape.

And the coaching – that is dramatically better. When the WNBA began, there was no talent pool for coaching professional women’s basketball players, so the coaches came from the women’s college game or from the NBA ranks. Now, there is a much more established group of coaches who have matured with the pro game.

What are your top three WNBA Finals moments?
1) The first championship game, in 1997: In its inaugural season, with eight teams, the WNBA did not have playoff series, but rather a championship game. Houston beat New York, and then Comets star Cynthia Cooper jumped up on press row, imploring the crowd to celebrate as confetti fell around her.

2) The incredible Game 1 of the 2009 Finals. Phoenix defeated Indiana 120-116 in overtime, with Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor each scored 23 points for Phoenix, and Indiana’s Katie Douglas scored 30. The game was played at a breathtaking pace, with one big play after another. It set the tone for a series that would go the distance, with the Mercury winning in five games.

3) Indiana’s Game 4 victory over Minnesota to clinch the 2012 WNBA title. The Fever were underdogs throughout most of that postseason, and lost key player Douglas to a severe ankle sprain during the Eastern Conference finals. Led by Tamika Catchings, the Fever overcame two favorites — Connecticut in the East Finals and the Lynx in the WNBA Finals — to win a championship that had “Catch” written all over it.

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