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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.''