Sacramento celebrates -- and starts to look ahead

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Despite winning the WNBA title just a year ago, the Sacramento Monarchs still don't get the respect they deserve. Maybe it's because they only finished second in their division. Or because they got swept by Los Angeles in the regular season. After all, it was the Sparks -- not the Monarchs -- who most experts picked to represent the Western Conference in the WNBA Finals this season.

But on Saturday, Sacramento proved it's truly one of the WNBA's elite franchises with a 72-58 trouncing of the Los Angeles Sparks. The defending champion Monarchs, seeded second after L.A. finished with a better regular-season record, played almost flawless textbook basketball to advance to the WNBA Finals against the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, either Detroit or Connecticut. The championship series begins Wednesday with the East champion holding homecourt advantage.

After going 0-3 against the Sparks in the regular season but sweeping them in the playoffs, Sacramento forward/center Yolanda Griffith indicated that the playoffs are all about being out with the old and in with the new.

"A lot of things in the beginning of the season hurt us," said Griffith, who led the Monarchs with 15 points and five boards. "DeMya (Walker) wasn't here, my injury, K-Law (Kara Lawson) was sick. It was just not complete. Once we started going along in the middle of the season, we started clicking as a whole.

"We know we're a great team. It was just at the beginning of the season we kind of started slow, but we knew once we got to the playoffs it was going to be a different ballgame. We started playing with a lot of confidence and we started playing together as a team."

That was very evident on Saturday when the Monarchs got balanced scoring from their starters and good support from the bench. Lawson, who played a team-high 33 minutes, scored 10 points and led the team in rebounding with 10 boards. Walker poured in 10 points and Rebekkah Brunson added another 10 off the bench, which, in the first 20 minutes Saturday, combined for just one fewer point (20) than the Sparks totaled in the first half (21).

The Monarchs ran away with the game early. They looked particularly stellar during the second quarter when they outscored the Sparks 22-8. Sacramento shot 41.3 percent for the game and outrebounded the Sparks 40-25.

"You have to start well," Lawson said. "That's what we tried to do. We knew that their crowd would be excited, that they would want to get off to a good start because they were down 1-0 and that they would play with a lot of emotion. So we did a good job in the first half of just kind of corralling their emotion and stretching out to pretty much an insurmountable lead."

Sacramento coach John Whisenant hinted that it wasn't as easy as it seemed.

"I feel like we were in a street fight, kind of, and I wasn't even on the floor," he said. "We got officials that kind of allowed us to play aggressively. It was an aggressive game. I'm pleased with the grit of my team. We showed determination. Our motto is 'be alert, be focused and be determined.' We were that.

"It was a struggle in the second half to maintain that lead. This is a very athletic, tough team that we just beat. We're glad to get out of here with a win. I did not want to have to go back to Staples."

The Monarchs will face the winner of the Detroit-Connecticut series on Wednesday. Sacramento topped Connecticut to claim its first WNBA title last year. The Sun were down 0-1 in the East finals, but were spurred by the comeback of Katie Douglas on Saturday and tied the series. Douglas missed the first game with a fractured right foot.

"I don't worry too much about who we play," Whisenant said. "That will be a dog fight over there whether Detroit or Connecticut gets it."

It really doesn't matter to Griffith which team they'll meet.

"Detroit led the WNBA in rebounding, they have a great starting five and some great players that come off the bench," she said. "Connecticut has the experience, they've been there two years in a row. It really doesn't matter. We can only control what we have to do. We're only worried about ourselves."

Fair enough. But is there still any lingering doubt that Sacramento has earned its rightful place among the great L.A. and Houston teams of the past and present?

"I'll let the media and the other coaches and the other people decide that," Whisenant said. "We've always felt that we've belonged. This is our fourth year to be in the finals for the West. And now we've won the West twice. We have always have tried to convince our players that we belong and that we can compete as a team. We hang together playing our team stuff we'll overcome some of the outstanding individual players that the other teams have.

"That's worked for us and we'll just keep trying."

Miki Turner, a freelance TV producer and writer in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.