Jim Souhan
See more of the story

Seimone Augustus started speaking, then covered her face with her elbow.

Lindsay Whalen slowly walked around the small locker room, hugging each teammate, before returning to her locker and talking quietly with Janel McCarville.

Maya Moore spoke quietly, shrugging, shaking her head, eyes wet.

Then Cheryl Reeve took a seat behind a microphone and lit into the officials, noting that a key Los Angeles basket came after the shot clock expired and the play was not reviewed.

The Minnesota Lynx have won three championships and competed in five WNBA Finals during this decade. They were attempting to tie a league record with a fourth title and for the first time win two in a row.

They did not improve their résumés, and were distraught about the outcome, yet they might have elevated an entire league. Their 77-76 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday night, in Game 5, in a full and raucous Target Center, might have set a new standard for the WNBA in terms of quality of play and atmosphere, at the end of a season in which league television ratings rose.

That was not what Lynx players wanted to hear late Thursday night. They are athletes, not advertisers. When they heard that Nneka Ogwumike's basket with 1 minute, 12 seconds remaining should not have counted, the players responded with disappointment, and their coach with anger.

"These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league," Reeve said during a long critique.

Reeve also praised Los Angeles and noted that if the call had gone her way, the Sparks still might have won.

Seimone Augustus, sitting to Reeve's left, spun the story forward.

"You couldn't have a better series than the two top teams competing against each other and going to a five-game series," Augustus said. "We always talk about great players making great plays. Throughout the five games you saw people rise to the occasion. On any given night, it was any given player that could be the most important piece at that time.

"This is what we needed. I hope that we gained a lot of fans around the world and around this country, and I hope they recognize how well that women's basketball is being played in the USA."

After Reeve vented about the officials, she admitted that her team could have played better. Los Angeles produced 14 offensive rebounds to six for the Lynx. Finals MVP Candace Parker produced 28 points, 12 rebounds and three steals.

The player left off the U.S. Olympic team — Parker — beat the team with four Olympians.

"No question, in terms of basketball, they scored at will in the paint," Reeve said. "The shot chart is not pretty. We understand where L.A. wants to be. With 14 offensive rebounds, they turned the tables on us."

Their kingdom for a boxout.

Or a call.

The play that incensed Reeve occurred with 1:12 remaining and the score tied. Ogwumike hit a difficult turnaround jumper as the shot clock reached zero. Officials waved to indicate that they would review the play. They never did.

"That doesn't make me feel any better," Maya Moore said after the game.

That shot gave Los Angeles a 73-71 lead and at least theoretically provided the difference in the game.

Which is a shame, because quality of play, and the physical nature of the play, was often astonishing. The Lynx had 25 assists on 31 baskets, moving the basketball as if it was stovetop hot. Rebekkah Brunson and Parker often fought for position so hard they looked ready to come to blows. Whalen had to use her off arm to ward off attacking defenders.

After Ogwumike's winning put-back, Whalen dribbled toward halfcourt and launched a shot that missed at the buzzer.

"I didn't breathe until the ball hit the backboard," Parker said.

As the ball bounced away, the arena fell silent, maybe for the first time all night.

The Lynx had entertained, and lost.

They will take solace in that, someday.

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com