<
>

Monarchs beat Comets, advance to Western finals

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Though the Sacramento Monarchs'
regular season felt like a mess, their first two playoff games have
been works of art.

Yolanda Griffith scored 17 points, Rebekkah Brunson added 14,
and the Monarchs advanced to the WNBA Western Conference finals
with a relentless 92-64 victory over the Houston Comets on Saturday
in Game 2 of their first-round series.

Ticha Penicheiro had seven assists and hit two 3-pointers for
the defending-champion Monarchs, who easily won Game 1 of the
best-of-three series in Houston before rolling into the conference
finals for the fourth straight season.

Even notoriously picky coach John Whisenant could only applaud
his starters when they left their second straight blowout win in
the closing seconds. Defense, accurate shooting, heady rebounding,
tenacity -- Sacramento had it all, and not even Houston's veteran
club could compete.

"We have that confidence," Griffith said. "We have that
little swagger that we did last year. ... Right now, we're playing
the best basketball we can possibly play. We don't have a (playoff)
switch in the locker room. We just know we can play the game."

The Comets managed just 29 points in the second half, never
getting within 10 points of the Monarchs in a 28-point loss --
nearly double the four-time champions' previous largest margin of
defeat in a playoff game, a 75-60 loss to Los Angeles in 1999.
Houston allowed 90 points just four times in 34 regular-season
games, but Sacramento reached the mark in both postseason games.

"The way Sacramento is playing, I don't think there's a team
that can beat them," said Comets guard Dawn Staley, who played her
final WNBA game.

The regular season was a drag in Sacramento -- from Griffith's
knee injuries to DeMya Walker's return from pregnancy, from Kara
Lawson's mysterious preseason illness to the death of Whisenant's
mother.

Sacramento still finished with the West's second-best record,
and none of the problems mattered during the Monarchs' two-game
postseason warning shot to the rest of the league.

"Our goal for the whole year was to hang tough during the
season, get into the playoffs and then have the depth to go from
there," Whisenant said. "I'm just happy with my team."

Nicole Powell, Walker and Lawson had 10 points apiece for
Sacramento, which set a franchise playoff record with 24 assists
and committed just six turnovers, tying another postseason best.

Sacramento will open the conference finals Thursday against Los
Angeles or Seattle, which beat the top-seeded Sparks in Game 1 of
that series Friday night. The Monarchs have been in the conference
finals in five of the last six seasons.

Michelle Snow scored 16 points and Tina Thompson added 14 for
the Comets, who haven't won a WNBA title since claiming the
league's first four crowns. Despite a wealth of veteran talent
including reigning MVP Sheryl Swoopes, who scored 12 points while
playing passively, the Comets are headed home with another
disappointing finish.

"(If) Sacramento shoots the ball as well as they shot it
against us the last two games, nobody is going to beat them," said
Houston coach Van Chancellor, who didn't address the retirement
rumors surrounding him. "They're going to repeat as WNBA champs."

The loss was the final game for Staley, who announced her
retirement as a player earlier during her fifth All-Star season.
The Temple coach is a three-time U.S. Olympian -- and the American
flagbearer at the Athens Games -- who has been in the WNBA since
1999, playing her first 6½ seasons with Charlotte.

Staley, who will be an assistant with the U.S. team at the world
championships this fall, went scoreless with three rebounds and two
assists. She got lengthy hugs from most of the Sacramento players
after the game.

"There was nothing we could do," Staley said. "I don't think
there's anything any team could do against two games the way
Sacramento played. It was incredible. ... They just put us on our
heels for 80 minutes, and you don't usually see that in
basketball."