Back-to-back wins lift Monarchs
After injuries and a 1-8 start, Sacramento seems to finally be coming together
Sacramento's Nicole Powell figures if the Monarchs got through June without totally disintegrating, then the rest of the summer could still be pretty good.
The injury-plagued Monarchs started the WNBA season 1-8, all in June.
"We hope this was the hardest part," Powell said wryly, in much the way Marlin the clownfish might have spoken about having finally found Nemo.
It looks as if Powell's instincts are on target. With the calendar turning to July, the Monarchs seem to have turned around from running straight off a cliff. They've won their past two games: a cathartic 74-68 victory on the road at Minnesota last week, and then a comfortable 83-73 win at home Tuesday against Chicago.
The Monarchs play at Seattle on Thursday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) to see if they can make this an actual winning "streak."
"I think we are getting some momentum," Powell said. "We still have a good team, and we've learned how tough we can be. Every team goes through things like this, with injuries. It's survival of the fittest."
And survive is about all the Monarchs were trying to do for a while. Veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro was out four games with a sprained thumb. And Sacramento playing without her is still a lot like somebody trying to drive blindfolded. Kara Lawson was also dealing with injuries, and DeMya Walker was working her way back after playing just 12 games combined over the past two WNBA seasons because of knee problems.
Questions swirled. Were the Monarchs too stale and unchanged a franchise, not having done enough with personnel moves to ensure a seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs? Was the sum-of-all-parts formula that has served Sacramento so well not going to work again? Were some of the veterans no longer able to produce the way they needed to?
Those outside the team wondered about all that, but Powell said her main concern was that the Monarchs weren't remembering what had always been most important to them.
"Something that has been special about playing for Sacramento is the consistency we've had," she said, referring to the franchise's nine playoff appearances in the past 10 seasons. "And we've kept much of the same core group for a while, but it's still a different team every year.
We've been successful so much. This year, it's going to be tough to do it again, because we've dug a big hole. But now we want to prove to ourselves and our coaches that we can do this.” -- Sacramento's Nicole Powell
"You can't rely on the past. You can't just expect it will happen because it always did before. I think that was also part of the problem, along with the injuries -- we sort of expected things to fall into place, and we forgot how hard we had to work to make that happen."
Then Powell, being a cerebral Stanford grad, probed even deeper into what makes a team "different" even when so many of the players have competed together for a long time.
"We're still evolving into who we want to be as people off the court," she said. "You're still going to have that same character you've had as an athlete, but elements of your personality are shifting a little bit based on getting older and your experiences.
"I think it's just adjusting to that -- people are growing in their game, but also in their lives. Part of our success is allowing each other to change and grow. As for me personally, I came back feeling very fresh this year. Even as well as I know everybody, I was still excited about the season and felt like it was going to be a new experience. It's pretty neat to still feel that way."
Indeed it is although going 1-8 certainly wasn't the "new experience" that Powell was looking for. Nonetheless, she and the Monarchs started to feel the clouds were lifting during their third of five consecutive road games. That was at Detroit on June 28, and Penicheiro was back in the starting lineup.
Sacramento still lost that game 86-72, and the score alone wouldn't give much indication that anything was improving for the Monarchs. But Powell said it did feel better -- the execution, the energy, the teamwork. It was starting to come back.
That carried over into the next game, at Chicago. The Monarchs were up by five points with just less than three minutes left, but the Sky rallied for a 74-72 victory. And you might have thought that was almost a knockout punch for Sacramento. But it really wasn't.
Coach Jenny Boucek talked to her players about how they were faced with a choice that likely could define their whole season.
"She said, 'Are you going to keep going or are you going to break?'" Powell said. "We made a concerted effort to say, 'We're not done. We know each other better than anybody else does, and we're not throwing in the towel. If we can make a push, we can be right back in it.'"
But consider their next task: facing the surging Lynx in Minnesota.
The Lynx had won three games in a row, including a road victory at Atlanta. So they seemed to have all the momentum that -- at least based on results -- the Monarchs totally lacked.
Yet these are situations in the WNBA that can produce the unexpected result -- perhaps as much because of one team's sense of desperation as anything else. And in this case, the Monarchs played as if they absolutely could not stand to lose one more time. That provided them enough fuel to top the Lynx 74-68.
Then Tuesday's box score was vintage Sacramento: All 11 Monarchs scored at least four points against Chicago, led by Laura Harper and Hamchetou Maiga-Ba with 13 each. Powell, the team's leading scorer on the season at 15.1 ppg, had 10 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
Admittedly, now at 3-8, the Monarchs still have an uphill battle just to reach a .500 record. And they next go to Seattle, which hasn't lost at home this season. Oh, and after her 1-for-11 struggle from the field in the Storm's victory Tuesday over San Antonio, Seattle's Lauren Jackson is probably ready to breathe fire.
But as Powell said, after what the Monarchs endured in June, they're prepared for even the worst of what July might throw at them.
"This is my fifth year here, and it's always been an enjoyable experience," Powell said. "We've been successful so much. This year, it's going to be tough to do it again, because we've dug a big hole. But now we want to prove to ourselves and our coaches that we can do this."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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