Griffith drives Monarchs toward another crown

Updated: September 5, 2006, 10:32 AM ET
Associated Press

When Yolanda Griffith kicked a water cooler and stalked out of practice late in the season, Sacramento Monarchs coach John Whisenant fined her -- yet he seemed secretly pleased.

Perhaps that's because the coach recognizes his own passion in his veteran center. After all, Griffith was angry because of Whisenant's biting instruction.

These two ferocious competitors might disagree at times, but they're united by a common cause. They have willed the unsung, star-free Monarchs to the brink of their second WNBA championship with a devotion to defense and an uncompromising attitude that sometimes comes out a little rough.

After four successful seasons together in Sacramento, Whisenant said he "couldn't have a better'' team leader.

"There's not a better one for my philosophy, for the way I preach defense, team play, unselfishness -- hard-nosed, tough, never-say-die,'' Whisenant said. "There's not one that I know out there in the WNBA like her. I lucked out when I got Yolanda.''

With Griffith scoring 15 points in just 17 minutes to rest her arthritic 36-year-old knees, the Monarchs trounced Detroit 89-69 Sunday in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Sacramento can close out the series Wednesday night (ESPN2, 9 ET) at home.

Though Whisenant believes he was lucky to inherit a star player with Griffith's mental focus, she also was fortunate when the Maloof brothers promoted their friend and former business consultant from New Mexico midway through the 2003 season to replace Maura McHugh.

The Monarchs had won just one playoff series in Griffith's first four seasons with the club, missing the postseason entirely in the previous season -- but Whisenant thought he knew how to fix that.

The coach figured his roster would thrive playing physical defense, so he shifted the focus to aggressive, cerebral defensive play. Griffith always loved such an approach, but rarely played it with Sacramento and her winter club in Russia.

"He did a great job getting us focused on what's really important,'' Griffith said. "We never played defense like this before he got here. We got a new commitment.''

Sacramento has reached the Western Conference finals in all four of Whisenant's postseasons with the club, breaking through last season to win the franchise's first title. Their roster of solid role players took the league by surprise, winning a WNBA title without a true offensive star.

The Monarchs have faced far more obstacles this season, however. Whisenant worked through distractions ranging from his mother's death to the Maloofs' interest in interviewing him for the Sacramento Kings' coaching vacancy, while Griffith managed the constant pain from her swollen joints -- and her frustrations when the Monarchs got off to a slow start.

"Everything started coming together [when] Coach came back and said, 'You play my defense. You don't play my defense, you don't play,' '' Griffith said. "We knew Coach was back. … We knew, once everybody got back, what kind of team we were going to be.''

Sacramento hit its stride shortly before the playoffs, and has been nearly unbeatable for three weeks. The Monarchs swept their first two postseason series before outplaying the Shock in perhaps 11 of the finals' 12 quarters so far.

Bill Laimbeer led Detroit to the 2003 title with a similar defensive focus, but hasn't been able to coax that same devotion from his current club. One day after deriding his players' work ethic and mental preparation, the volatile coach hadn't softened his feelings much after Monday's practice.

"Their body language showed that they weren't fully there,'' Laimbeer said. "They walked through a lot of stuff, the way they transitioned up and down the floor. The concentration [and] effort put forward wasn't enough.''


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press