Finally, a title to call their own
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Kara Lawson found an open place to sit in the packed Sacramento locker room: on Nicole Powell's knee. Yes, the great Tennessee-Stanford divide had been bridged.
"We came together for the purple, for the Monarchs," laughed a hoarse Powell after Sacramento's Game 4 title-clinching 62-59 victory over Connecticut in the WNBA Finals on Tuesday. "She's on the West Coast now."
Lawson teased back, "She's all right. But she annoys me. She thinks she's really smart because she has a Stanford degree."
Tennessee has six NCAA titles and Stanford two -- but Lawson and Powell weren't on any of those teams. Then you have Rebekkah Brunson, who spent four seasons playing for Ol' Yeller, Pat Knapp, the former coach at Georgetown, and never made the NCAA Tournament. Two trips to the WNIT was all the college postseason "glory" Brunson had.
DeMya Walker was a one half away from a Final Four trip her freshman season at Virginia in 1996, but Tennessee and Chamique Holdsclaw took that away. Chelsea Newton can relate; her Rutgers team fell to Tennessee in the Elite Eight this year. Oh, so can Powell; Stanford went down in the 2004 Elite Eight to the Orange Crush in her senior year.
Tennessee yanked Ticha Penicheiro's best shot at an NCAA title with Old Dominion, in the 1997 championship game. And, of course, it was Old Dominion that handed Olympia Scott-Richardson's Stanford team the program's most painful loss, in the 1997 Final Four semis. The next year, Scott-Richardson finished her college career enduring an injury-depleted Stanford team's NCAA first-round loss to No. 16 Harvard.
Hamchetou Maiga? She was with the ODU team that fell in the Elite Eight to the 2002 UConn undefeated juggernaut. Erin Buescher spent three years at UCSB, then went to the NAIA in her senior season. Kristin Haynie and Michigan State made it all the way to the NCAA title game this year, but ran out of gas against Baylor.
So, that's almost the complete college title-less crew that finally could celebrate winning it all Tuesday night. Which brings us to
The MVP, Yolanda Griffith. Her story is very familiar to WNBA followers, but just to recap: She was recruited to Iowa, sat out for academics, had a daughter, went to junior college in Florida and then spent two years at Division II Florida Atlantic.
In 1993, when Iowa made the Final Four, Griffith might have been with the Hawkeyes had things all worked out differently. Maybe with her, Iowa beats Ohio State in the semis, and there would have been a showdown between Griffith's Hawkeyes and Sheryl Swoopes' Texas Tech team in the final. But that didn't happen. Swoopes won that title and was the college sensation of 1993, while most women's hoops fans had long since lost track of Griffith, although she was a D-II Kodak All-American that year.
Yet then, Swoopes and Griffith and every other female player finished with her college eligibility was in the same rather depressing boat. No American pro league to play in. The U.S. women had gotten "only" a bronze in the 1992 Olympics, and there was no buzz about women's hoops coming out of Barcelona. Swoopes went to work in a bank for a while. Griffith headed to Germany for the opportunity, however obscure, of European pro ball.
Thanks in part to the popularity and gold-medal success of the USA women in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the WNBA started the next summer. And so here we are in 2005, with Swoopes still on top of her game, as the league's regular-season MVP for Western Conference finalist Houston, and Griffith as the WNBA Finals MVP for champion Sacramento.
I could say it a million times: This is one of the truly wonderful things about the WNBA: opportunity. The chance to watch great players live out the full arc of their careers. The chance to see good players who never got any spotlight in college show how talented they are. The chance to observe how a pretty good college player can fully develop her basketball potential in her mid- to late-20s.
We missed all that for so many years and for so many players. It's a shame, yet it makes every passing WNBA season something to fully appreciate. Because we don't miss it anymore.
Griffith competed in the ABL for the two and a half seasons it lasted, but the WNBA has given her the opportunity to have a real stage for her vast ability. Even in kind of an "off" game, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, Griffith was the star Tuesday.
She acknowledged that earlier this year, she wasn't sure she wanted to remain with Sacramento. She saw her friend and interior mate Tangela Smith traded. There were a lot of youngsters on the roster. She felt the Monarchs had been so close to contending for a WNBA title in her six seasons at Sacramento, but she doubted that for 2005.
"In the beginning of this season, I didn't want to be here because I didn't think that this would be possible. But I'm glad I decided to stay," Griffith said. "Coach [John] Whisenant told me this was my team, and he needed me to teach the young players how to mature."
And yes, Whisenant was provided an opportunity by the WNBA, too -- the chance to return to coaching again. He started his college coaching career as an assistant at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas in the 1960s. After four years as head coach at Arizona Western, he became an assistant for Norm Ellenberger at New Mexico.
The Lobos had very good teams -- but weren't exactly sticklers for the rules, to say the least. The result was "Lobogate," a scandal that involved 57 NCAA violations and even an FBI raid of the New Mexico men's basketball offices in 1979. The staff was fired, of course, and Whisenant entered the business world. A longtime friend of the Maloof family, which was based in Albuquerque, Whisenant became a success in real estate and construction. But he never lost the desire to coach.
He coached his kids' AAU teams. He coached the New Mexico Slam of the IBL from 1999-2001. But when he went to Sacramento to be an assistant general manager to Jerry Reynolds in 2003, he said he had no intention of coaching. But sometimes, things just seem destined to happen.
Whisenant took over when Maura McHugh was fired in the 2003 season. The Monarchs, especially veterans such as Griffith and Penicheiro, didn't know what to think of his defense-comes-first system. But the team was successful, and Whisenant came back on board for 2004 and took over the role as general manager.
The Monarchs' 2-1 series loss to Seattle in the Western Conference Finals last year was extremely disappointing to Griffith. She takes more than her share of punishment on the inside, and she has been doing it now for so many years. She had two Olympic gold medals, but she wanted a WNBA championship to solidify her career.
And this year, she has been everything the Monarchs needed. Lawson, Walker and Penicheiro all missed time with injuries. But Griffith didn't miss a game, even though, as she said Tuesday, "My right knee is swollen like a big cantaloupe."
If probably didn't really hurt too badly, though, when she knew she finally had her title. And guess what? She's still not done.
"Once you win one, you're hungry to win another one," she said. "So we'll be back next year."
Like a patient boxer who continuously lands hit after hit to the body, Sacramento's defense pounds away at the opponent, and in the second half of Game 4 on Tuesday, once again wore down Connecticut. And that's why you knew the Sun couldn't have been too comfortable with a six-point halftime lead.
Connecticut did everything right in the first 20 minutes, grabbing a half dozen offensive rebounds (a statistical category usually dominated by the Monarchs), harassing Sacramento into nine first-half turnovers and taking away the Monarchs' transition game (Sacramento failed to score any fastbreak points).
But for as well as the Sun played -- and for as bad as the Monarchs looked -- you got the feeling Connecticut's 31-25 edge at the break wouldn't be enough. And sure enough, just 93 seconds into the second half, Sacramento had rattled off seven points and taken the lead for good on a tip-in from Rebekkah Brunson.
Sacramento's white line defense and depth continued to lead the way. While only five players scored for Connecticut, eight Monarchs scored and nine played at least 10 minutes.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
• Click here to read Lieberman's complete analysis
Lindsay Whalen limped out of the training area in the locker room at Arco Arena, slumped in a chair and reflected on a playoff series in which she was never even close to full strength.
A crucial component in the Sun's ride to an Eastern Conference championship -- Whalen averaged a league-best 20 points per game in the first round -- the second-year point guard started the series with a knee injury, then sprained the ankle on the same leg in Game 1. She sat out the second game and was never really the same in the final two games in Sacramento.
She played 26 minutes in Game 4, shooting 1-for-6 and finishing with three points, six rebounds, five assists and four turnovers.
"I went into the game with the mindset I would put the injuries behind me,'' she said. "I was going to let it all out in the last game. I felt I did that.''
In the offseason, Whalen will probably contemplate what might have happened in the WNBA Finals had she been healthy.
"It will always be a question in everyone's mind, but the fact is I just wasn't healthy,'' she said.
-- The Associated Press
In fact, 139 days earlier, on May 3, the franchise traded away Tangela Smith, who had started 223 career games in Sacramento and was Yo Griffith's frontcourt mate, for Nicole Powell, who had struggled through a disappointing rookie season in Charlotte. Whisenant was looking to improve his team's outside shooting, especially since the Monarchs had failed to hit a single 3-pointer from the wing position in 2004.
But this summer, Powell, the league's Most Improved Player, solved that problem, nailed several big-time treys in the playoffs and averaged 11.0 points in the championship series. Meanwhile, DeMya Walker, who played out of position at the 3 last season but moved to Smith's vacated spot at the 4, had an All-Star season. Whisenant looks like a genius, right?
But it gets better. Sure, we don't know who will be left after the expansion draft is held later this month -- it's expected that each team will be able to protect six players from getting drafted -- but maybe Griffith, who says the Monarchs will be back again next year, is right. Because Whisenant has another ace in his pocket: Back on May 18, he secured a first-round pick in next year's draft when he traded away center Chantelle Anderson to San Antonio. Can't wait to see what else "Whiz" has in store.
Yolanda Griffith, Sacramento
Hey, who are we to argue? She was a unanimous MVP choice after notching her second double-double to average 18.5 points and 10 rebounds in the series. Never mind her 1-for-6 performance from the field in the first half. We liked her six points and two rebounds in the first five minutes of the second, as the Monarchs made a pivotal run that gave them a lead they'd never relinquish. After the break, the ever-aggressive Griffith grabbed every loose ball, got to the foul line (her 8-for-10 effort at the charity stripe helped offset her 3-of-11 performance from the field) and willed Sacramento to the championship. She finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds and sank a pair of free throws with 1:44 to play to stretch the Monarchs' lead back to three points. The league crowned its third new champion in as many years. And Griffith -- an Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA regular-season MVP (1999) -- finally got the title she has always wanted.
“We gave away homecourt [advantage] in Game 1. That came back to haunt us. ”
— Coach Mike Thibault, whose Sun were upset at home in Game 1
|The Sun led by 11 at one point in the first half and by six at halftime. But Sacramento needed just 93 seconds to erase the deficit once the second half began. Ahead 31-25 to start the second, the Sun won the jump ball but immediately turned over the ball. Sacramento's Nicole Powell made them pay with a 3-pointer, and followed by a missed trey at the other end, Yolanda Griffith added a layin off a Ticha Penicheiro pass. Then, the unbelievable happened -- 5-foot-11 Penichiero blocked a short jumper from 7-2 Margo Dydek, and though Penicheiro failed to sink the layup on the ensuing play, Rebekkah Brunson -- who had her best game of the season -- capped a 7-0 run that gave Sacramento the lead for good with a tip-in with 18:27 to play. The Sun later tied the score at 36 and pulled within one or two points on several occasions before time ran out.|
So for the second year in a row, the Connecticut Sun players shook the offending wrong-colored confetti from their hair, talked about playing hard, gave credit to the victors and then took a cross-country flight back home with no WNBA trophy. But, they were here in the finals. They made Sacramento sweat its way to the three victories needed for the title. And they did it despite injured point guard Lindsay Whalen really being just a shadow of herself. To point out the impact of Whalen's diminished ability is to take nothing away from the Monarchs, who did indeed prove themselves to be the league's best team. It is only to show that the Sun's luck was not as good as it could have been. But the Sun players need to remember by any standard, they're ahead of much of the league. That's at least something to take on that flight home.
-- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
Click here to read Voepel's complete column
|Kara Lawson could joke about a couple of mistakes she made in the closing minutes of Game 4, including a crucial turnover that gave the Sun renewed hope. Yet there was no losing the game ball afterward, as the Monarchs guard paraded around the court with teammates and danced down the scorers' table as the Arco Arena crowd celebrated Sacramento's first basketball championship. "I threw the ball away in the last two minutes, so it was nice to have it in my hands afterward,'' said Lawson, who made two free throws to put Sacramento up 61-56 with 1:23 remaining. "I've always dreamed of winning a title, and I have the ball in my hands when the game ends.'' -- The Associated Press|
|The Monarchs did what their NBA counterpart Kings haven't -- win a title. But brothers Gavin and Joe Maloof -- whose family owns the Sacramento franchise -- were ecstatic to have their first championship to celebrate, especially after attending each game of the WNBA Finals. "The WNBA is some of the best basketball in the world -- it's just amazing. The level of play, over the tenure we've owned the Monarchs has risen so dramatically," Gavin Maloof told WNBA.com. "Everybody can play now. Everybody can shoot, everybody can pass. The league has gotten so much better." And for those keeping score, the Monarchs' title is Sacramento's first in a major professional sport. The Sacramento Capitals have won a World Team Tennis title and the Sacramento Surge was a World Football League champ.|
• Monarchs 62, Sun 59
• Voepel: Sun denied again
• Lieberman: Best Finals ever
• Monarchs 66, Sun 55
• Lawson's order |
• Dish: Walker's redemption
• Sun 77, Monarchs 70 OT
• Wyckoff 3 saves Sun |
• Dish: Pressure's on forwards
• Hobbled Whalen sits out
• Monarchs 69, Sun 65 |
• Voepel: Sun flame out
• Dish: Whalen not enough
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
STORIES FROM HUFFINGTON POST