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Detroit must find heart, leader on road at Arco

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Detroit's Katie Smith thought about it for a while. You could see her mind flashing back even to Logan High School in Ohio. The question was, "What's the most difficult road game you ever won?"

"You're talking about a hostile arena that doesn't want you to even get a sniff of winning?" Smith said. "Honestly, the Sydney Olympics when we played Australia in the gold-medal game."

The Americans won that game in 2000. On Wednesday, Smith and her Shock teammates will face a situation in which they'll be just as much the bad guys as Team USA was back then.

Down 2-1 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, Detroit must win Game 4 in Arco Arena (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), where Sacramento has won 11 consecutive playoff games. The last three times the Shock have played here -- going back to 2005 -- Detroit hasn't just lost, but has been blown out.

Most everyone in Arco will be decked out in purple and silver, pounding their ThunderStix, stomping, clapping, whistling and cheering. Except when they are booing the refs and Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer.

In Game 3 on Sunday, the Shock mentally checked out for much of the second half, and the Arco atmosphere played a role in that. The Detroit players didn't look like they could summon the energy to even appear to be making a comeback.

"I'd say [it was] a little disappointing, a little disturbing," Laimbeer said. "We made them watch tape, and they know it. Their body language showed that they weren't fully there. The way they walked through a lot of stuff instead of running hard. The effort/concentration put forth wasn't enough."

If Detroit goes into that mode again Wednesday, there's no hope for the Shock. So what must Detroit do to avoid that and send the series back to Motown for Game 5, which would be played Saturday?

"The key is limiting runs," Smith said. "They're going to hit some big shots, they're going to get momentum. It's how you stand up to that. Are you going to get another stop? Are you going to go down and get a bucket? It's limiting their spurts, and not getting this crowd worked up."

Same question to Ruth Riley. Her toughest win on the road ever? She also thought about it awhile, then suggested it was her freshman year at Notre Dame, when the Irish faced No. 1 seed Texas Tech in the second round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Texas Tech had won the Big 12 title, then was host to the early rounds and the Midwest Regional that year. A clear path to the Final Four, right?

Nope. Notre Dame stunned Tech and its 8,000-plus supporters at old Lubbock Municipal Coliseum, 74-59.

Riley was the MVP of the 2001 Final Four and 2003 WNBA Finals. So we know that she has big-game potential. We just don't know if that will surface during this championship series. It hasn't yet. Riley has a combined six points, five rebounds and 13 fouls in the three games so far.

"I think the key is making the little plays," Riley said of what Detroit must do Wednesday. "Not turning the ball over, getting every loose ball, getting every rebound you can.

"Because when a team gets an offensive rebound at home, their crowd goes wild. When they get a steal, their crowd gives them energy. When you can play solidly, it eliminates that a little bit."

OK, how about you, Swin Cash? Toughest win on the road? Of course, she played college ball at UConn, so she was used to winning everywhere against crowds screaming loudly against her and her teammates.

"We had so many huge games, and the mentality we had in college was a little different," Cash said. "When we stepped on the floor, we understood that the other team did not like us."

But there's no place quite like Knoxville, Tenn., for that disdain. During Cash's UConn career, the Huskies won in the Orange Palace twice.

"In 2002, we were so fired up, everybody was going crazy," Cash said. "I remember [Diana Taurasi] just punching the [basket brace] like five time in a row. It was just that type of emotional, intense game. That's just how you have to be locked into it."

Laimbeer was asked who the on-court leader was for the Shock, the person most responsible for making sure the "we will fight" mentality stayed in place.

"I could have easily answered that in the past. Right now, I'm unclear," he said. "That's been pretty much a yearlong thing. There really hasn't been a leader really step forth. Cash is our captain; she's been inconsistent this year."

Asked who that "easy answer" in the past was, he said, "Swin Cash."

When this was relayed to Cash, the best way to describe the look on her face was -- OK, the best non-profane way … we'll go with "irked." You can tell Cash feels she's being singled out more than anyone else by Laimbeer, and she doesn't much like it.

However, remember her UConn pedigree. Laimbeer knows that tweaking Cash like this is a calculated risk, but one worth taking. If he can help spur Cash to play most of Wednesday the way she did in the first half of Game 2, then it will have been a good gamble.

"You know, I come out and perform," Cash said. "A lot of things you do -- whether it's rebounding, assists, defending, helping, all the intangible things -- can lead a team in the series. That's what I pride myself on. That's how I lead."

Asked if it was important that she get the Shock's energy going with some early baskets, especially in transition, Cash let a little of her frustration show.

"Well, you know, getting out in full tilt … somebody has to pass you the ball," she said. "But [the Monarchs] don't want me to get into transition. That's something they're trying to take away. You can hear them talking.

"So for me, maybe [I'll] come out and force the issue a little more. I don't like to be too aggressive outside our offense. But … I'm not going to sit there and let us go downhill. When it's time for somebody to step up, if it's got to be me, it has to be me. I don't veer away from that responsibility at all. But I think there are a lot of people on our team who could step up."

Probably, a lot of them will have to if Detroit is to get this done.

"As long as we go out there and play hard and smart," Smith said, "if we give a full-fledged fight and we still lose, I can handle it. I just want the effort."

If Detroit can triumph, Smith knows where it will rank in her memory of toughest wins on the road: "This would be one of the best."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.