Yo! When Griffith speaks, rookies listen

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A little more than five months ago, Kristin Haynie was wearing green and white and getting ready to play in the NCAA championship game. Now, she's in purple and white and set for another "title game."

That's what Tuesday's Game 4 of the WNBA Finals (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) is, as Sacramento has a 2-1 lead over Connecticut. From Spartan to Monarch, Haynie has found the trip to be a mix of emotions, mostly all very good.

Sure, it was a disappointment when her Michigan State team lost to Baylor in Indianapolis in April. Then there was the race back to East Lansing, where Haynie completed all her course work and finished her degree. There was rookie camp, the draft, the move to California and getting accustomed to pro basketball.

"It's been tiring, but you've got to get past that mental hump and know you can rest after the season," Haynie said. "There's been a lot of fun and excitement. It's been a whirlwind, but you can't ask for anything better."

One of the biggest adjustments, Haynie said, was switching to man-to-man defense after playing all zone in college.

Meanwhile, fellow rookie Chelsea Newton came off an Elite Eight season with Rutgers and found Sacramento's defense to be a comfortable transition. Because, of course, she was used to high-octane defense under Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer.

Newton had about two weeks from the end of her college career to when she was back on the court getting ready for the WNBA. She said that was plenty of recovery time.

"That's all I needed," she said. "In college, you think of how strenuous practices are. In the WNBA, you're not in school, you're not in practice as long. Basically, now we play basketball and lift weights. I think that's relaxing."

The two rookies have been an important part of the Monarchs' march to the WNBA Finals, and now it's their hope to win a championship. Not just for themselves, but for veterans like Yolanda Griffith. At 35, Griffith started playing pro hoops overseas when Newton and Haynie were still grade-schoolers.

"She's relentless," Newton said of Griffith. "Sometimes you wonder like, 'Why is she so uptight? We played well. Why doesn't she just say that?' But she can't, because she's been here for a long time and she really knows what it takes. You have to respect that and know that she knows what she's talking about.

"She doesn't want to see us let down in any part of the game. You never play a perfect game, but it needs to be near-perfect for her."

Newton, a 5-foot-11 guard, has started all seven playoff games and is averaging 6.6 points in the postseason. Haynie, a 5-9 guard, has come off the bench in each postseason game and averaged 2.6 points.

"Kristin and I are best of friends," Newton said. "We have a buddy system. We're buddies, and Yo is the big buddy. She takes care of us. I would love to be on the team that helps her win a championship. I grew up watching her. I idolized her then, and I still idolize her now."

Haynie said, "I remember having Yo's trading card when I was younger. She is just a very hard worker, she's not afraid of anything, she tells you how it is. Teams need that. She's just a great leader. The veterans have pulled us in and made us feel comfortable, like we're all family. That's one of the biggest successes of this team."

Griffith is near the end of her career, Newton and Haynie at the beginning of theirs. They know they're lucky to have the chance to play with her. Can they last as long as Griffith has? They can only hope. Not many have or will, certainly not at the level at which Griffith is still competing.

Griffith says she's still playing basketball because she wants a WNBA title. But this team, with the tone set by veterans Griffith and Ticha Penicheiro, has provided a lot of good feelings that everyone involved will hold on to even if Sacramento doesn't take the championship.

"I'm cherishing every moment of it," Griffith said. "To win it -- I'll probably break down and cry, I don't know. But if it doesn't happen, I'm not disappointed. It's been a great season."

As for the rookies, Griffith was asked the main thing she has tried to get across to them this season. She paused for a second, then gave an answer I wish every young athlete, male and female, in any sport would hear and take to heart.

"Nothing is guaranteed in life or on the basketball court," she said. "When you have a bad game, just review the little mistakes that caused you to have that. Try to be stronger the next game, but don't dwell on it. Constantly continue to work hard. Don't settle for anything.

"I've been playing this game for a long time, and I still work on making myself better. Have a great attitude about the game and about the people that are trying to help you. Just listen -- be better listeners. I still listen."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.