Penicheiro returns; Sun await word on Whalen


UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Ticha Penicheiro was forced to the
sideline during the Western Conference Finals because of a sprained
ankle. The WNBA assists leader insists nothing will prevent her
from playing in Sacramento's first championship series.

"I'll be able to go,'' Penicheiro said before practice Tuesday.
"This is the WNBA Finals. You suck it up and you rest after.''

The Monarchs swept the conference series against Houston as
backup guard Kara Lawson ensured that Sacramento didn't miss a
beat. She had 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the
74-65 clinching victory, and more importantly gave Penicheiro time
to heal.

"She was incredible,'' Penicheiro said. "I just saw the focus,
the leadership and the way she played on both sides of the court. I
was talking to her before the (Houston) game and she told me,
'Don't worry. We're going to get this one for you.' ''

The sweep earned Sacramento its first WNBA Finals berth after
three previous failed attempts. Connecticut, which has the best
record in the WNBA, is back for the second straight year and has
some injury problems of its own as the series begins tonight (ESPN2, 8 ET).

Star point guard Lindsay Whalen broke a bone in her left knee
and is questionable for the finals, though Sun coach Mike Thibault told ESPN's Nancy Lieberman this afternoon that Whalen has been cleared to play and could even start Game 1.

"She's going to come here to the gym, warm up and see how it feels," Thibault said. "She is cleared to play. It's going to be Lindsay's decision, whatever she can tolerate. She's a tough kid."

Whalen took jump shot after jump shot Tuesday testing her injured left knee while her Connecticut
teammates ran drills at the other end of the court, preparing to
move on without her if they have to.

"This is an opportunity for everybody to step up,'' Sun forward
Nykesha Sales said. "Lindsay's a big part of our team, but we have
some other players who are going to have to come in and fill some
pretty big shoes.''

Whalen, who averaged 16.5 points and 36 minutes through the
first two rounds, was injured in a collision with Indiana guard
Tully Bevilaqua late in the first half of Saturday's Eastern
Conference final. She has been receiving treatment 12 hours a day and
the location of the fracture is away from the area that receives
the most of the stress when running. That has given Whalen and the
team some hope that she'll be on the floor at some point in the
Sun's second straight attempt at the title.

"It could be worse,'' Whalen said. "I'm already kind of
running around and jumping. They kind of said to me 'Just see how
you feel.' ''

All season, the second-year guard has aggressively attacked
defenses and created opportunities for her teammates. She scored a
playoff-high 27 points against Detroit in the first round, getting
to the free throw line 17 times and making 15.

"Lindsay is unique in that she's a star in creating,''
Sacramento coach John Whisenant said. "She'll create something out
of nothing, either for herself or her teammates. She's the Steve
Nash of the WNBA.''

Jen Derevjanik, a second-year player out of George Mason, would
likely start in Whalen's place. A speedy and defensive-minded
player, Derevjanik is scoreless while averaging only 6.5 minutes in
the postseason.

"I've been thinking that whoever I give the ball to, I know
they're going to do something good with it, so it really doesn't
matter,'' Derevjanik said. "I've just got to get it to the open
person, run the offense, play good defense and that's really what
I'm hoping to do for us to win the championship.''

Connecticut won both games in the regular season against
Sacramento, a team similar in many ways. Both swept their opponents
in the first two rounds of the playoffs and have veteran leadership
with the Monarchs' Yolanda Griffith and Sun's Taj

They play unselfish and are among the top defensive teams in the
league. Griffith has averaged a team-high 16 points and 6.8
rebounds in the playoffs, and McWilliams-Franklin has averaged 17.3
points and 6.5 boards.

"We've had some major injuries, but we've always found a way to
win,'' Griffith said. "They've finished first in the East, we
finished first in the West. It's going to be a dogfight. It's not
going to be easy.''

The Monarchs have the WNBA coach of the year in Whisenant and
the league's most improved player in Nicole Powell. The team's
offseason trade with Charlotte for Powell, the former Stanford
star, has given it an outside offensive threat.

The Monarchs had no 3-pointers from their wing position last
season. Powell changed all that and finished the regular season
with a league-leading 66 3-pointers. She has made 7-of-17 from behind
the arc in the postseason. With Powell and Lawson on the floor,
opposing defenses are stretched to cover the long-range threat.

"You didn't know how the trade was going to work out. She's
given them a dimension they've never had,'' Sun coach Mike Thibault
said of Powell.

Thibault said he has been encouraged by the progress Whalen has
made since her injury four days ago, but doesn't expect to overhaul
his game plan if she doesn't play.

"There are not a lot of secrets. We don't have time to make big
adjustments. There's no reason to,'' Thibault said. "Both teams
got here because they were playing well the way they were. Now you
just go out and play the game.''

It's only fitting that the Monarchs and Sun are meeting in the WNBA Finals. The teams finished with the top-two records in the regular season and are both undefeated in the playoffs. Connecticut finished a franchise-best 26-8 in the regular season and swept both the Detroit Shock and Indiana Fever to reach its second consecutive trip to the Finals.

"I think we were a lot more excited last year,'' Sales said. "This year we are excited but we realize that it defeats the purpose to go the championship and lose. We've been here before and after what happened last year, it's more humbling because we know the job is not done yet.''