Wiggins Looks To Be WNBA Champion

By Michelle Smith

Candice Wiggins was barely 10 years old when the WNBA started back in 1997.

She remembers watching Cynthia Cooper, the former USC star, kissing the first WNBA championship trophy.

She remembers wanting to do that, to be there someday.

And she knows now that she didn't have any idea as a young girl what that would take. Now she does.

"This is a 14-year dream that's been in the making," Wiggins said. "You have to slap yourself that you're here. It's an awesome feeling."

Wiggins, the Wade Trophy winner, who led the Stanford Cardinal to the first of four straight Final Four appearances in 2008, and is regarded as one of the best women's basketball players in conference history, is two wins away from the championship that eluded her at Stanford.

She is the first player off the bench for the Minnesota Lynx, who posted the best record in the WNBA this season. The Lynx won the first playoff series in franchise history and have advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time.

Minnesota has the home-court advantage in the best-of-five series against the Atlanta Dream and a 2-0 lead as the series heads to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday.

"I was inspired by the WNBA as a kid, but it's so far away," Wiggins said. "And you think 'I want to get there,' but you can't even conceptualize what it's going to look like. First you have to make it to college and you have to get drafted, which is so incredibly difficult - it's a narrow path to get into the WNBA."

But Wiggins is here. She was the No. 3 pick in the WNBA Draft following her magical 2008 season.

But it's not always been a smooth path for the energetic guard.

She has spent much of her career coming off the bench for a struggling Minnesota team.

Wiggins sustained a torn Achilles tendon early in the 2010 season. She was forced to take some time away from basketball, her first time off since high school, and she returned to Stanford.

She took classes, hung out with friends, concentrated on being a student in a way she never could when she was a student-athlete.

"I learned that I was a really good student," Wiggins said. "Stanford can be a really daunting place and you think 'Do I belong here?' But I did."

She was rejuvenated mentally and emotionally. All that was left was to get her body ready for her fourth WNBA season. She did that as well. She said she was fully healthy this season, which she said was her goal for the year.

"I learned so much about myself and I also saw a glimpse about what life would be like outside of basketball," Wiggins said. "At the same time, that's not going to be for a very long time. I'm still very much in my career."

Wiggins' role for a loaded Lynx team that features stars such as Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Lindsay Whalen - not to mention 2011 Rookie of the Year Maya Moore - is to provide a spark off the bench, whether it be scoring or lock-down perimeter defense or spelling starting point guard Whalen.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said that Wiggins contributions have been "huge."

"She is different than Lindsay. She'll make some shots," Reeve said. "She understands how important defense is to me, in our schemes and she's really embraced that."

Reeves said Wiggins has appeared stronger this season that at any point last year.

"I think the time off was good for her and it was well-spent," Reeve said. "It's traumatic to go through an Achilles injury. Time away and time at Stanford was good for her. It was good for her to get back to her roots. She's extremely happy in that environment."

Wiggins said she is satisfied with her role.

"Obviously I want to hit shots," Wiggins said. "We are winning and we are winning in such an awesome way and I feel like I'm contributing to that. And I'm learning. I'm really young and I understand that my best years are ahead of me in terms of individual performance. I'm confident in that."

The energy she showed at Stanford is still there.

"Players love feeding off her energy," Reeve said. "She and Maya kind of give us that college energy. They aren't too proud to do that. And her teammates actually love it."

Wiggins said she still leans on the advice she got from Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.

"I remember all the things Tara used to tell me," Wiggins said. "She would talk about the things that separated me as a player and she would never talk about my scoring ability. It's the way you can impact anything by doing what you do. It's not even things that people might see. I know what I provide for my team and it doesn't matter if it's not point production.

"I learned at Stanford, from Tara, that it's about who I am."

By this time next week, Wiggins might well be a WNBA Champion.

Photo Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)