Monarchs ready for conference finals
SACRAMENTO -- After opening the WNBA playoffs last week with a surprisingly easy two-game sweep of the Houston Comets, the defending champion Sacramento Monarchs clearly have their eye on another title.
The Monarchs reached the Western Conference Finals for a fourth straight year on Saturday by dismantling the Comets, who defeated Sacramento three times in the regular season and were thought to have a good chance of winning the opening-round series.
Not only did the Monarchs win the series, they did it in dominating fashion. They opened with a franchise-record point total in a 93-78 victory in Houston, then were even better in humbling the Comets 92-64 two days later at home.
The Monarchs still don't know who they'll play in the conference finals opening Thursday -- or even where that game will be. The top-seeded Los Angeles Sparks beat Seattle 78-70 Sunday to even their first-round series at one game apiece.
If Los Angeles wins the rubber match Tuesday night, the conference finals will open in Sacramento on Thursday. If the Storm rallies, the Monarchs will travel to Seattle before two possible home games on the weekend.
But if the Comets can be believed, it might not matter.
"I don't think there is anything any team could have done in the two games that we played Sacramento,'' said Houston guard Dawn Staley, who played her final WNBA game. "They played head and shoulders above us. I've never seen that.''
The Monarchs struggled offensively in the regular season when they posted a 21-13 record and finished second to the Sparks in the West.
But everything clicked offensively against Houston. In Game 2, the Monarchs established team playoff records for fewest turnovers (six), most assists (24) and biggest margin of victory (28).
Led by Yolanda Griffith's 17 points and seven rebounds, Sacramento had 10 players with six or more points while making 51 percent of its shots. The Monarchs dominated the boards -- especially offensively, where their 15 rebounds led to 22 points.
"You look at the Comets, they have experience, great players, the [four] championships, so if you had told me that we were going to beat them 2-0 like that, I would say, 'You have to be kidding,' '' Ticha Penicheiro said.
A proud player who is the all-time WNBA assist leader, Penicheiro says the Monarchs are motivated to repeat and disprove the skeptics who didn't list them among the serious title contenders when the playoffs began.
"We're the defending champions, but we get no respect from anyone,'' said Penicheiro, who had six points and seven assists in Game 2. "People were saying that Houston was going to win this series. We know we can win another title. We're the deepest team in the WNBA, and we're peaking at just the right time.''
It has not been an easy road this year for Sacramento. The Monarchs lost standout defensive guard Chelsea Newton to Chicago in the expansion draft -- and in the preseason, guard Kara Lawson had a mysterious fatigue-inducing illness that caused her to miss playing time. Griffith, the team's perennial All-Star center, had aching knees that required rest at times.
All the problems were not confined to the players.
Coach John Whisenant left the team for several games to be at the side of his mother, who died in June. Whisenant and the team were further distracted when his name was prominently mentioned for the Sacramento Kings' head coaching job that ultimately went to Eric Musselman.
Despite hovering near the .500 mark for much of the first half, the Monarchs began a strong playoff push with seven straight wins in July. They feel they entered the playoffs ready to defend their title.
"After the All-Star break, we reevaluated the first half and saw all the things we weren't doing, and we readjusted,'' Griffith said. "We have that confidence, we have that swagger. Right now we're playing the best basketball we can play.''
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press