Jim Souhan
See more of the story

For even a sedentary human, back problems are the method by which the universe foreshadows purgatory. For an athlete, back problems must feel like an angry god unleashed a squadron of miniature sadistic frat boys to inflict ritual hazing upon the spinal column.

Running a basketball court while an invisible demon jams skewers into your lumbar is no way to pursue a championship. Janel McCarville pursued one, anyway, Sunday night. The Lynx center played in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, and played with no regard for vertebrae or disks. She wasn't the most valuable player for the Lynx in a tour de force 84-59 victory over Atlanta at Target Center, but her play might have been the most surprising.

Considered questionable earlier Sunday because of lower back pain and spasms, McCarville insisted on playing. In the first minutes, she muscled inside for a basket, then stole the ball and, later in the possession, fed Seimone Augustus for a layup.

Then she dived on the floor for a loose ball. Then she dived on the floor again. "Some of it was hustle," she said. "Some of it was uncoordination."

Next time down the court, she threw a no-look, back-door pass to Augustus for another layup. She delivered three of the Lynx's first four assists of the game, creating the kind of ball movement that makes the game beautiful and her team remarkably efficient.

In the third quarter, she made a less artistic play. She floored Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry with a pick, then caught a pass, drilled a jumper and jogged past the still-prone McCoughtry. The Lynx led 48-31 and Atlanta was down for the count.

"I didn't feel it as much as she felt it," McCarville said. "But it definitely jarred me from top to bottom."

Before every game McCarville spreads rosin on the scorer's table, then stencils in her autograph before taking the floor. Sunday, she made shallow etches in a winning boxscore, finishing with seven points, one block, one steal, four assists and five rebounds in 22 minutes, while defending powerful Atlanta post Erika DeSouza.

"Battling with DeSouza is no easy task," McCarville said.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve knows. She noticed McCarville "hurting" in the third quarter. "I appreciated the heck out of her," Reeve said. "She was a warrior. She had a tough couple of days, physically. And she put it aside for us."

When McCarville decided to return to the WNBA, she didn't want to play anywhere other than Minnesota, which is a reasonable drive from her Wisconsin home and features her friend and fellow Gopher alum Lindsay Whalen.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve did some due diligence before signing off on McCarville's signing. She wanted to know whether McCarville had retained any of her competitive fire. Would she dedicate herself to getting into shape? Would she be coachable?

Whalen vouched for her, and the duo that helped Gophers women's basketball sell out Williams Arena began reprising their buddy act in downtown Minneapolis, to great effect.

The Lynx finished with the league's best record at 26-8. When McCarville missed a couple of games this season with a concussion, the Lynx lost both. "She's like a second point guard for us," Whalen said.

By the fourth quarter, McCarville was icing her back on the bench and making faces at her personal cheering section, the family members who drove in from Wisconsin for the game and drove home after so the kids could get to school in the morning.

She and Whalen threw arms around each other's shoulders and celebrated their biggest victory together since they made women's college basketball matter in Minnesota.

"That was great," McCarville said. "It's the reason I came back, to play with 'Whay', to be on this tremendous team, to have a chance to win a championship.

"That was all part of the situation I knew I was walking into. That's why I chose Minnesota, and this is what it's all about."

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com