Tuesday, September 20, 2005 Updated: September 21, 4:03 AM ET
Defense, depth carry Monarchs to first title
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Like a patient boxer who continuously lands hit after hit to the body, Sacramento's defense pounds away at the opponent, and in the second half of Game 4 on Tuesday, once again wore down Connecticut.
Yolanda Griffith was named WNBA Finals MVP after averaging 18.5 points and 10 rebounds in the series.
And that's why you knew the Sun couldn't have been too comfortable with a six-point halftime lead.
Connecticut did everything right in the first 20 minutes. The Sun grabbed a half dozen offensive rebounds, a statistical category usually dominated by the Monarchs. Connecticut also harassed Sacramento into nine first-half turnovers, and knocked down enough shots to take away the Monarchs' transition game as Sacramento failed to score any fastbreak points.
But for as well as the Sun played -- and for as bad as the Monarchs looked in a 10-for-31 shooting performance -- you got the feeling Connecticut's 31-25 edge at the break wouldn't be enough. And sure enough, just 93 seconds into the second half, Sacramento had rattled off seven points and taken the lead for good on a tip-in from Rebekkah Brunson.
Sacramento's white line defense -- it overloads one side of the floor, which puts plenty of traffic in front of the opponent, and rotates very well as a team -- and depth continued to lead the way. While only five players scored for Connecticut, eight Monarchs scored and nine played at least 10 minutes. In the back-to-back Games 1 and 2 last week, several Monarchs averaged as many as five more minutes per game than they did in the regular season. But coach John Whisenant never panicked Tuesday, stuck with his rotation and rested players when they needed it -- even as Sacramento fell behind by 11 at one point in the first half.
Monarchs forward Yolanda Griffith was amazing and the difference maker in the second half. After going 1-for-6 from the field in the first, she attacked the boards with tremendous energy and aggression that set a tone her teammates fed off of. The boards allowed Sacramento to start pushing tempo again.
Point guard Ticha Penicheiro played really well. Although she was just 2-for-8 from the field, her increased aggressiveness to the rim opened up some looks for her teammates. Brunson also was a key factor. In the regular season, she averaged 8.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, but had been struggling in the WNBA Finals with 3.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. On Tuesday, she had 12 points and added six rebounds.
The fact that Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen -- who suffered a broken bone in her left knee in the East finals and then a sprained left ankle in Game 1 -- wasn't at 100 percent ended up being insurmountable. Connecticut's offense was clearly compromised, and without Whalen's penetration -- and double-digit scoring average -- the Sun ended up living and dying by the 3-pointer, especially against a Sacramento defense that dares you to shoot from downtown. That was a huge factor Tuesday as Connecticut finished just 3-for-14 (21.4 percent) from downtown, and only 21-for-63 (33.3 percent) from the field.
Throughout most of the series, the Sun also failed to get enough bench production, though post Asjha Jones came through Tuesday with a career-best 21 points. That helped offset slightly decreased numbers from Nykesha Sales and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who were averaging about 45 percent of the Sun's offense in the WNBA Finals. On Tuesday, they combined for just 20 points on 8-for-28 shooting, but Sales played the best basketball of her career in this series and McWilliams-Franklin was spectacular.
Though the result is no doubt disappointing for Connecticut, which lost in the WNBA Finals for the second consecutive season, the series was extremely fun to watch as well as the most competitive we've seen in the league's nine-year history. There was excitement from whistle-to-whistle, great one-on-one matchups, and plenty of drama. Three of the four games were decided by single digits and went down to the last possession before Sacramento owners Joe and Gavin Maloof won their first title -- in the NBA or WNBA.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.