Monarchs claim WNBA crown

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Yolanda Griffith raised the WNBA championship trophy, she turned to look for only one person. Ticha Penicheiro had been by her side with the Sacramento Monarchs since many of their teammates were in high school.

The power forward and her point guard finally came together to kick off a celebration that's been anticipated in Sacramento since the league's founding season.

Griffith had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Penicheiro scored the final point as the Monarchs wrapped up their first title with a 62-59 victory over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday night.

The victory was cathartic for two stars on a team used to near-misses every season. After losing in the Western Conference finals in three of the past four years, coach John Whisenant revamped the roster around Griffith, a seven-year veteran with roots in the ABL, and Penicheiro, the WNBA's career assists leader with eight seasons in Sacramento.

''We've been waiting a long time, a long time,'' said Penicheiro, who had six assists and made a free throw with 9.9 seconds left. ''I always knew it would get here, always. We finally got in a situation where everything came together. This was a special team from the start.''

The veterans taught a defense-first attitude that clinched the season's final victory: The Sun frantically looked for an open 3-pointer in the closing seconds, but the relentless Monarchs simply wouldn't allow it. Nykesha Sales' desperate heave didn't make it to the basket, and Sacramento let loose with confetti and screams.

''I wanted this so bad,'' Griffith said afterward, her braids soaked in champagne. ''This is the reason I came back. I was going to do whatever I had to do to help this team win. I was a coach for this team, on and off the court. I'm so proud, because I was the captain, and we all did something special.''

Griffith was the unanimous series MVP, averaging 18.5 points and 10 rebounds in the finals.

The win capped a franchise-best 25-9 regular season, followed by seven victories in eight playoff games. The Monarchs finished the dominant season with three tense wins over the Sun, who won one more game in the regular season, but couldn't overcome injuries with the Monarchs' tenacity.

Nicole Powell scored 13 points and Rebekkah Brunson had 12 for the Monarchs, who made another big second-half rally and held off another late charge by the Sun. Sacramento's 10-point lead shrank to one in the final minutes before the Monarchs got their big stop.

Ashja Jones scored a playoff career-high 21 points, but Connecticut's stars struggled in the biggest game of the season. Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Sales accounted for slightly less than half of the Sun's points during their playoff run, but they combined for 20 points on 8-of-28 shooting in Game 4.

''We have a very persistent team here, but we didn't make shots when we needed to,'' Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. ''We missed too many easy shots. I don't think we got any breaks, but we also didn't make our shots.''

After blowing an 11-point first-half lead, Connecticut made a late rally for the second straight game, pulling to 57-56 with 2:57 to play. Griffith made a key deflection and hit two free throws with 1:44 left, but Katie Douglas hit a 3-pointer with 37 seconds to play.

Leading 61-59, the Monarchs ran down the clock and nearly turned over the ball before Penicheiro was fouled by McWilliams-Franklin with 9.9 seconds left. Penicheiro made one of two free throws — and just as in Game 2, the Monarchs had a three-point lead with a few seconds left.

But the Monarchs, who blew a defensive rotation and allowed Brooke Wyckoff's tying 3-pointer late in Game 2, didn't do it again.

''I had the ball, and I knew I had to do something,'' Sales said. ''People were coming at me. I had to chuck it up.''

The Monarchs hugged and danced at midcourt with owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, who joined Kara Lawson in dancing atop the scorers' table. Confetti poured from the rafters at Arco Arena, where a near-sellout crowd was deafening.

''These fans have just jumped on,'' Whisenant said. ''I think it's great for women's basketball and this city. We've got great pro sports fans here, and it's shown. I think this is a great step for the future of the WNBA.''

After Houston and Los Angeles won the WNBA's first six titles from 1997-02, Sacramento is the league's third new champion in three seasons. Detroit won it all in 2003, and Seattle was the defending champion.

Sacramento won the series opener in Connecticut with the suffocating defense that won the Western Conference title, but the Sun evened the series with an overtime victory in Game 2. The Monarchs won 66-55 in Game 3, again relying on defense, superior depth and Griffith's relentless inside play.

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