UNCASVILLE, Conn. It's taken Yolanda Griffith seven years to reach the WNBA Finals, and her debut was a splashy one.
Griffith scored 25 points and dominated inside as the Sacramento Monarchs beat the Connecticut Sun 69-65 in the opener of the best-of-five series. With her career winding down, the 35-year-old forward knows this could be her last shot at the title.
''Nothing in life is guaranteed and I've been preaching that from Day 1,'' Griffith said. ''We're here this year but we can finish last next year.''
The Monarchs lost both regular-season meetings but used a strong inside game, anchored by Griffith, and relentless defense to hand Connecticut a rare home loss. The Sun, making their second straight appearance in the finals, had lost only three games this season at the Mohegan Sun arena coming in. Game 2 is Thursday night in Connecticut.
The Monarchs outscored Connecticut 38-26 in the paint. Griffith's 25 points are the fifth-highest single-game total in WNBA Finals history.
''She's got that will right now to go and try to win a championship like everybody else and you can see how possessed she is at playing,'' Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said.
The home crowd got into it early when Lindsay Whalen was announced for the starting lineup for Connecticut. The star point guard broke a bone in her left knee during the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday and was questionable for this series. The 8,200 fans erupted when Whalen ran onto the floor through bright orange jets of fire.
However, Griffith had the strong shooting touch in the end. The league's leading offensive rebounder, Griffith shot 11-for-17, mostly on inside and second-chance buckets, and finished with a team-high nine boards. The Monarchs' defensive pressure forced the Sun into 15 turnovers.
Matched up most of the game against Connecticut's 7-foot-2 center Margo Dydek, Griffith time and again shot over Dydek's long reach or beat her on the baseline.
''She's like a wall,'' Griffith said of Dydek. ''She sits right there in the paint, so when you get a jump shot, you've got to have confidence and knock the shot down.''
Nykesha Sales led the Sun with 23 points. Her 3-pointer with 1:26 left in the game pulled Connecticut to within three at 66-63. The Sun had a chance to tie it on their next possession but Whalen missed a wide-open 3 from the right wing and the Monarchs hit 3-of-4 from the line to ice the game.
Nicole Powell, who won the league's most improved player award, finished with 10 points that included a pair of 3s.
Katie Douglas scored 14 points for Connecticut, Taj McWilliams-Franklin had 10 rebounds and Dydek finished with four blocks.
Whalen handled the Monarchs constant pressure and played 25 minutes without a turnover. She finished with seven points.
''Gutsy, very gutsy,'' Monarchs coach John Whisenant said. ''She played hard and determined. We intended to give Lindsay fits, whether she had a knee (injury) not.''
Whalen played with a brace on the knee and admitted to some discomfort, but not enough to sideline her.
''I'm trying to get used to playing with it. And not playing four days, I kind of got out of rhythm a little bit,'' Whalen said.
Sales had 12 points in the first half and the Sun led by as many as seven points in the period. But Sacramento quickly closed the gap with an 8-2 run in the closing minutes. Griffith's layup with 4:17 left pulled the Monarchs to within one at 26-25.
Whalen then intercepted Ticha Penicheiro's pass in the paint to kick off a fastbreak and found Douglas on the wing, who nailed a 3-pointer to give the Sun a 31-27 lead at the break.
But the Monarchs turned up the defensive pressure in the second half and the Sun played disjointed in stretches.
''I think we lost our composure,'' Douglas said. ''Their defensive intensity is tremendous the entire 40 minutes. They never really relax. It's something that we're going to face the rest of the series, so we better get used to it.''
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