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Third year's the charm for Dream

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ATLANTA -- For a team that endured so much losing its first season, maybe it's only appropriate that a defeat was the turning point for the Atlanta Dream on the way to the WNBA Finals.

Turn back to the final day of the regular season, when the Dream trailed Washington by 23 points heading to the fourth quarter.

The home crowd was grumbling. The players were embarrassed. The coaches couldn't figure out what to do.

Then, suddenly, something clicked.

"We were getting killed by Washington," team owner Kathy Betty recalled Thursday. "I saw that look in the fourth quarter that they had at the beginning of the season. That determination. If you watched it, you can see it.

"They were relentless. They wouldn't quit."

Atlanta didn't win that game, but it rallied to lose by a much more respectable score of 90-81. And the momentum for that game carried over to the playoffs, where the Dream have swept two straight series to reach the best-of-five championship against Seattle.

Game 1 is Sunday.

"Everyone knew we were not that bad," said Marynell Meadors, the team's coach and general manager. "The team knew that. They knew they had to do something about it, and they have.

"And," she added, "we're not done yet."

The Dream have undergone a remarkable, if somewhat rocky climb to earn a shot at becoming only the third major-league pro team in Atlanta to win a championship. The most recent was the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and even that team is known more for its playoff flops than its one title.

Atlanta's other championship team was the long-forgotten Chiefs, who won the inaugural title in the now-defunct North American Soccer League in 1968.

Iziane Castro Marques is from Brazil, but even she's aware of Atlanta's checkered sports history.

Titletown U.S.A., this ain't.

"I think the Braves won back in the day, right?" she said after a practice at Georgia Tech's campus gym. "I hope everyone is very proud of us. I hope they know we fight our (butts) off every day to get a championship in Atlanta."

A championship was the last thing on her mind after the Dream went 4-30 in its inaugural season. That team lost its first 18 games, many of them in gut-wrenching fashion.

"We were like, 'Come on, are we never going to win a game?'" said Castro Marques, one of only two players left from the 2008 squad. "It's not like they were all 20-point losses. We were always in there fighting, always in there trying to get that win. It just never happened. When we finally got that first win, it was such a relief."

Meadors knew she had to have some stars if she wanted to turn things around. She persuaded Chamique Holdsclaw, who had retired from the WNBA, to come back. Angel McCoughtry was taken with the first pick in the draft. Sancho Lyttle joined the Dream after Houston folded.

Atlanta had the greatest one-season turnaround in WNBA history last season, going 18-16 to make the playoffs. But they were swept in the first round.

Still, it should have been a momentum-building season.

Instead, the team's original owner ran into financial troubles. If someone didn't step up -- which seemed unlikely to happen given the sorry state of the economy and a dip in attendance in Year 2 -- the franchise was doomed.

"I was really concerned about us," Meadors said. "I knew we would have to find new ownership. If we didn't, we would fold. And that was sad. We were right on the brink."

Betty stepped up to buy the team, assuring it would return for a third season.

Then, two days before training camp, another setback: The mercurial Holdsclaw suddenly announced that she didn't want to play for the Dream anymore. She was waived, bringing back nothing in return.

"We were counting on her," Meadors aid. "That was really hard. Somehow or another, everyone else stepped up. It made our young players gain a lot of experience and confidence, Angel being one of them."

As has been the case so many times for this franchise, a bitter loss was turned into an advantage.

McCoughtry was handed the keys to team and thrived. She averaged 21.1 points a game during the regular season, and clinched the Eastern Conference finals with a WNBA playoff-record 42-point effort against the New York Liberty.

"I was going to have a real situation, because she was so good I couldn't keep her on the bench for any length of time," Meadors said. "A spot opened up for her and she's taken full advantage."

McCoughtry clearly relishes her starring role.

"Everybody is all pumped up about these little 42 points," she said. "The thing is, this is nothing new for me. I've been doing that since college (at Louisville). It's just that people never knew."

She then added, sounding very much like a true superstar, "Being a leader, not everybody is going to like you.

"Everybody doesn't like Kobe (Bryant). Everybody doesn't like LeBron (James). Everybody's got something to say. You've really got to have the mental state that some people are going to talk negative and some people are going to love you.

"It comes with the territory."

The Dream will be heavy underdogs against the Seattle Storm, who went 28-6 -- six more wins than any other team in the league. But Atlanta keeps turning potential losses into wins.

On Thursday, the team learned that Game 3 of the finals will be held at Philips Arena instead of an arena in suburban Gwinnett County. Officials worked out a scheduling conflict, allowing the Dream to play one more game at their regular home. (Game 4, if necessary, would be in the suburbs).

"We are moving up," Meadors said with a big smile.