Detroit takes its first WNBA championship

Sparks exhausted by Shock treatment

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Red, white and blue confetti fluttered through the air and fireworks exploded in what could have been a building without the WNBA this season.

The celebration followed the Detroit Shock's perfect ending to their worst-to-first story.

Ruth Riley scored a career-high 27 points and Detroit beat the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Sparks 83-78 Tuesday night in the decisive Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. It was the highest-scoring game in the seven-year history of the league finals.

The Shock won a league-best 25 games this season, one year after losing a league-worst 23 with the franchise in danger of being moved or folding.

''It's an amazing story,'' Riley said. ''But honestly, it all starts with Coach.''

That coach is Bill Laimbeer.

Yes, the former notorious member of the Detroit Pistons ''Bad Boys'' in the late 1980s.

Shock president Tom Wilson has said Laimbeer, who took over the team when it was 0-10 last year, saved the franchise.

The game drew a WNBA-record crowd of 22,076, breaking the mark of 19,563 fans who watched New York play at Houston in the 2000 finals.

''The crowd was unbelievable,'' Laimbeer said.

The Shock are just the third franchise to win the WNBA title. The Houston Comets won the first four and the Sparks the last two.

The Sparks trailed for much of the game, but led 73-70 with 3:40 left.

Riley, who was selected the MVP of the finals, made a jumper and Deanna Nolan connected on a 3-pointer with 53 seconds left to give Detroit the lead for good.

DeLisha Milton said Riley surprised the Sparks, who allowed her to take numerous, uncontested mid-range jumpers. She finished 11-for-19 from the field.

''We were just banking on their inexperience and her having some jitters, like what happened in Game 2, when late in that game, the basket got a little small for her,'' Milton said.

Detroit's Cheryl Ford, with her father Karl Malone covering his eyes at courtside, made four free throws in the final minute to help seal the win. After the game, Ford jumped into her father's arms.

''In the last game of my college career, I missed some big free throws against LSU and it cost us the game,'' said Ford, the league's rookie of the year from Louisiana Tech, her father's alma mater. ''That's why he couldn't watch.

''I told him, 'I've got a ring, now it's your turn.'''

Among those in the Thunder Stix-clapping crowd were Malone's Los Angeles Lakers teammate Derek Fisher, Detroit Lions rookie Charles Rogers, former boxing great Thomas ''Hit Man'' Hearns and Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson, two former teammates of Laimbeer.

Los Angeles' Mwadi Mabika scored a season-high 29 points, while Lisa Leslie, who fouled out with 43 seconds left, had 13.

''This is probably the most-physical game that I've ever played in my life,'' Leslie said. ''I guess this is where our game is going.''

Nolan, who hit the game-winning free throws with 12 seconds left in Game 2, scored 17 points, including seven in the final minute. Swin Cash had 13 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists and Ford added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Milton scored 19 points for the Sparks and Tamecka Dixon added 14.

''You couldn't ask for a better game than what you got out there today,'' Sparks coach Michael Cooper said. ''The Detroit Shock are definitely worthy of this championship.

''The only thing I don't like is the fact that they made their coach seem like he's a fortune teller or something.''

Even before the season that almost never happened, Laimbeer was publicly saying the Shock could win a championship. Like he did as a player for the Pistons in 1989, Laimbeer prevented Cooper, a member of the ''Showtime'' Lakers, from winning a third straight title.

After falling behind by 19 points in the first half of Game 2, Los Angeles trailed by 14 in the first half and by 11 early in the second half of Game 3.

Mabika made two free throws to tie the game at 66 and she gave the Sparks a 72-70 lead with 4:17 left. Leslie added a free throw before Detroit made the plays for the win.

After struggling on the offensive end for a few possessions, Riley and Nolan hit clutch shots and Detroit made all eight of its free throw attempts in the final minute to seal the win.

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