Sun flame out vs. team-oriented Monarchs

Updated: September 15, 2005, 1:00 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- OK, I've covered a lot of basketball games, but Wednesday's Game 1 of the WNBA Finals provided something unique. It was the first time I've sat on press row and experienced the sensation of being a piece of toast.

Ticha Penicheiro
Terrence Vaccaro/Getty ImagesNo matter who's on the floor, the Monarchs have overcome injuries and odds. And that, Ticha Penicheiro says, is the "beauty of this team."

Wait a second … bread doesn't really have any sensations, does it? How about the sensation of getting too close while trying to roast some marshmallows?

The Connecticut Sun folks brought out this flame-blower thing -- that's the only way I know how to describe it -- for the starting lineup to run through.

After the flames blasted, of course, is when they were supposed to run through it. They were warned. But surely, they were prepared, too. I mean, what coach doesn't practice that every day?

"OK, now we're going to do the 'run through the shooting flame thing' again. No screwing around, either. Anyone who gets her eyelashes singed off is running steps as soon as the paramedics leave, I promise you."

I must say, this flame thing didn't strike me as a very good idea. Maybe I'm just a worrywart, but I don't care much for situations that seem to scream, "HELLO, I'M A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN!"

I actually didn't notice it until the first flames went up, though. I had been busy trying to connect the cord of my laptop into a power strip in the semi-dark "ambiance" of the introductions. I felt a blast of heat and thought, "Oh, no, what did I just plug into?"

But … it was only the flame thing, which I suppose was approximating by a billionth or so the actual heat of the sun were you a few feet from it.

As for the heat of the Sun, though … it wasn't hot enough to protect the home court against a Sacramento victory. And maybe that's because this season, the Monarchs have proven burn-proof.

Injuries to Kara Lawson, DeMya Walker and Ticha Penicheiro have not stopped them. Rather, every time fate (or whatever) seems to want to torch Sacramento, Yolanda Griffith and crew get out their fire extinguishers and then carry on.

"That's the beauty of this team; I'm so proud of everybody and how they've played throughout the year," said Penicheiro, who missed the Western Conference Finals with a sprained ankle, but had eight assists in 21 minutes of play Wednesday. "When DeMya went down, [Rebekkah Brunson] stepped up. When Kara was out, it was a lot of people. We always find ways to win.

"I think that's why we're playing so well right now -- because everybody at certain points in the season has had to carry some of the load. We go 10 people deep."

Depth is one of the under-utilized aspects of the WNBA, in part because it requires a coaching commitment to have confidence in your whole team and be patient as everyone learns to be comfortable in various combinations.

And also because it's just hard, when you're typically facing extremely good talent in every game, to trust the reserves.

Walker thinks, though, that the key is coach John Whisenant and his staff did just that -- even when injuries didn't force them to.

"The entire season, even when we were all healthy, we all still played and mixed-and-matched our squads in practice," Walker said. "So when something did happen to someone, we didn't feel out of place with anyone or didn't know what the chemistry would be. We already knew. Because they had built it that way from the beginning of training camp."

Whisenant takes pride in his team being called a "pain" to play and says the Monarchs try to irritate and bother and pester opponents. Yet the Monarchs this season never seem to get on each other's nerves. There's a sense of purpose when you have the mix of players that the Monarchs have.

The longtime veterans such as Griffith and Penicheiro, both consummate professionals. A player who has really worked hard to earn recognition in Walker. A player like Lawson who came from the mountain-range high expectations of Pat Summitt in college at Tennessee. A kid out to prove herself after a awful rookie season in Nicole Powell.

Other youngsters who play like they mean business: Brunson, Kristin Haynie and Chelsea Newton. And there's Hamchetou Maiga and Olympia Scott-Richardson, role players who give something even if they're just on court for a few minutes. Those 10 all played for the Monarchs in their 69-65 victory; Erin Buescher didn't get in the game but has made her contributions, too, this season.

Whisenant talked afterward about how this series is still "far from over" but that he, obviously, preferred the position his team was in.

Griffith echoed Whisenant, saying the Monarchs can't let up for a second even though they have won the first game. Griffith had 25 points and nine rebounds. It was exactly what you'd expect from her the first time she has had a chance to be in the WNBA Finals.

"She's one of the greatest competitors I've known," Penicheiro said. "If you think I'm hungry, look at her."

It's a good "hunger" that Griffith has helped her teammates also feel and appreciate. That's the way it has been for Sacramento this season. It's not just that everybody is on the same page or even on the same paragraph.

They're on the same word.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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