Sacramento has finally secured its first trip to the WNBA Finals. Now, Ticha Penicheiro just hopes to play in the championship series.
Penicheiro missed both games of the Western Conference Finals after suffering a severely sprained left ankle in practice last Tuesday. But the Monarchs' point guard is hopeful she'll see plenty of playing time come Wednesday once the WNBA Finals open in Connecticut.
"I'm optimistic that I'll be able to play," Penicheiro said late Saturday after the Monarchs capped their Western Conference Finals sweep of Houston with a 74-65 victory. After three previous failed attempts, the Monarchs reached the WNBA Finals for the first time.
Still, there's some concern that Penicheiro's being over-positive. Though a week will have passed since the injury once Game 1 tips off, she couldn't bear weight on the ankle for two days. Though she's walking pain-free now, the ankle was still fairly tender when she ran on it Saturday morning.
The biggest red flag, however, occurred when Penicheiro attempted to shoot a free throw.
"When I went to bend my knee," Penicheiro said, "a sharp pain shot up the inside of my ankle."
Like most athletes, Penicheiro has sprained her ankle numerous times over the course of her career. Playing through similar injuries is something Penicheiro is "just used to," but usually, she says, the pain is "not this bad."
Penicheiro will continue the rehab process over the next few days, but keep in mind a coast-to-coast flight -- Connecticut hosts Games 1 and 2 before the series moves to Sacramento for Game 3 on Sept. 18, which marks Penicheiro's 31st birthday -- will only bring on more swelling to the ankle.
Prior to the injury, Penicheiro was playing some of the best basketball -- especially offensively -- of her eight-year WNBA career. In the regular season, she shot 31.4 percent from the field and averaged 5.7 points, 4.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. But she doubled her scoring production in the first round, averaging 11 points on 53.8 accuracy (7-for-13). Penicheiro's also dished out 7.5 assists and grabbed 4.5 boards per game in Sacramento's two-game sweep of Los Angeles.
Most notably, Penicheiro was playing very aggressively and looking to get to the rim every time she had the ball, which hasn't been a typical mindset in her game over the years.
Because of her excellent defensive abilities, Penicheiro was expected to guard Houston's Sheryl Swoopes in the West finals. Instead, Sacramento reserve Kara Lawson, a natural off-guard, took Penicheiro's place in the starting lineup and put together some of her best performances of the season.
Stopping Connecticut point guard Lindsay Whalen will be one of the Monarchs' key concerns, and when healthy, Penicheiro is the perfect defensive matchup. Whalen's at her best when she's able to penetrate inside and get her hips and shoulders square toward the basket. But Penicheiro, who has excelled defensively in coach John Whisenant's system, is strong enough to keep Whalen out of the paint, quick enough to keep up with her in the open court and long enough to contest Whalen's shots.
Either way, both players are two of the best passers in the game, and a Penicheiro-Whalen matchup could be one of the best, most entertaining one-on-one battles of the postseason.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.