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Griffith drives Monarchs toward another crown

9/5/2006

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.''