December 01, 2011

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Geno Auriemma laughed before repeating the question. "You want to know how life will be different without Maya Moore this year?" said the longtime UConn women's basketball coach. "Maya lost four games in her entire college career. When you don't have somebody like that around, it's like taking Roy Halladay or Ryan Howard out of the lineup."

You search for words to describe Maya Moore and it always comes back to the simplest one: winner. It's a simple word with profound implications, but it truly best describes what the 22-year-old represents on and off the court.

In May, Moore graduated from UConn following arguably the greatest collegiate career in women's basketball history. Four months later she helped lead the Minnesota Lynx to the franchise's first WNBA title. During a year in which college scandals dominated the news cycle on a near-daily basis, Moore was a student-athlete sports fans could believe in. She's my 2011 Sportswoman of the Year not just for her accomplishments over the past 12 months but also for her daily excellence over the past four years.

Moore played in 154 college basketball games; her team compiled a 150-4 record, including two NCAA titles, four Final Four appearances and an NCAA-record 90 consecutive victories. Individually, she finished as UConn's alltime leading scorer and the fourth-leading scorer in NCAA Division I history, with 3,036 points. She is only the second player to earn first team All-America honors four years in a row and she won the Wade Trophy as the top women's basketball player three times.

In 2011, Moore was the focal point of every UConn opponent and still averaged 22.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.3 steals. UConn did not win the national championship -- they were picked off by Notre Dame in the national semis -- but Moore never quit trying to bring UConn back until the final buzzer at Conseco Fieldhouse. She finished with 36 points and scored 16 of her team's final 18 points. Two months later she was named the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year for the second time, joining swimmer Tracy Caulkins as the only athletes to win the award twice.

More impressive than her individual accomplishments as an WNBA rookie was how she helped change the culture of the Minnesota franchise. Prior to Moore's arrival, the Lynx were 13-21, tied for the second worst record in the WNBA. This year, Minnesota finished a league best 27-7 and clinched home court throughout the playoffs. They ended up sweeping Phoenix in the Western Conference finals and Atlanta in the championship series to win the franchise's first-ever finals. Moore scored 15 points in the clinching game of the finals -- including a late three-pointer after Atlanta cut Minnesota's lead to five. "If Maya Moore's shot doesn't go in, who knows what's going to happen,'' said Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors, echoing a familiar refrain.

Moore was named the league's Rookie of the Year after averaging 13.2 points. Expect those numbers to grow along with her game. "I think I did pretty well," Moore said of her first pro season. "Obviously, there is always more I wish I could do and do better at certain times, and there are things I want to add to my game. But I think it's all part of the natural growth of a player and not being satisfied where you are in your first year.

"As far as our team, it was just phenomenal. We just had an unbelievable year, how we worked together and the chemistry we had. I was glad I was able to contribute. But I must say, I was proud of myself for playing through mistakes and not getting so down on myself or frustrated when I would make mistakes or struggle at times, and then to bounce back and to continue to play hard and make a contribution."

Moore also deserves admiration for how much she respected the student part of student-athlete. She graduated from Connecticut with a 3.669 GPA. (as a Sports Media and Promotion major), and was awarded the 2011 NCAA Elite 88 Award for compiling the highest GPA of all the student-athletes competing at the Final Four last year.

I remember when SI named Mary Decker as its Sportswoman of the Year in 1983, the magazine ran the following headline on top of the story: SHE RUNS, AND WE'RE LIFTED. I think of Moore in the same way. Watching her do her thing on and off the court reminds us that excellence exists. She lifted her sport to a better place in 2011, and for that I honor her here.

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