Hard-nosed Monarchs ready for title defense

Updated: May 20, 2006, 8:16 AM ET
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Yolanda Griffith still chuckles at the memory of the WNBA's collective surprise when her Sacramento Monarchs bruised their way through the playoffs last season to win their first title.

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With their heavy emphasis on defense and a roster free of big stars, the Monarchs' late surge to the city's first championship was a surprise to almost everybody except the players who did it. Most of those players are back for another run this summer, and their 36-year-old leader hopes there's another surprise in store for the WNBA.

"What it's going to take to win this year is to act like we didn't win last year,'' Griffith said. "Nobody thought we would do it. They thought we were just another team. We won a championship, we had a parade -- and now it feels like we didn't really win anything. We don't want to be one of those teams that are one-and-done.''

Sacramento opens the regular season today against the Phoenix Mercury (ABC, 4 ET). The Monarchs will receive their championship rings while their title banner is raised to the rafters of sold-out Arco Arena.

When the pregame festivities end, Griffith doesn't expect last season to be mentioned much again. The Monarchs have other concerns: Finding their groove without starters DeMya Walker and Chelsea Newton while blending rookies Kim Smith and Scholanda Dorrell into their veteran core.

But the title will be a fond memory -- and an incentive to the returning champs.

"When you're able to experience that as a team, it's intoxicating,'' said guard Kara Lawson, who missed the preseason with an unexplained, energy-sapping ailment. "You want to feel it again. That's what you hear [Michael] Jordan and [Larry] Bird talking about. You really want to have that again.''

The Monarchs kept much of last season's core intact, but made two significant changes.

They lost Newton, a defensive specialist who started all 34 games last season and made the WNBA's all-rookie team, to Chicago in the expansion draft. Walker, last season's surprise leading scorer, then gave birth and went on maternity leave April 11, and the Monarchs don't know when she'll return.

"A whole lot is different,'' Griffith said. "We don't have Chelsea. We don't have DeMya at the start of the season. Our team last year was so unselfish. Nobody cared who did what. Teams were sleeping on us last year, but we sneaked up and won a championship.''

After nearly leaving the team last summer, Griffith sacrificed her statistics and poured herself into coach John Whisenant's obsessive defense, which wore down the league's top clubs. Whisenant is back for his third full season in charge, and he's sticking with his formula.

Whisenant's philosophies are intriguing contrasts, with rigorous, structured defense combined with improvised, free-flowing offense. The combination is tough to instill, but it worked tremendously last season once Whisenant sold it to the club.

"They're exercising their defensive muscles, which they haven't used on their foreign teams,'' Whisenant said during camp. "Fans don't understand that we have to work very hard at all five positions defensively, or we're going to give up layups. The only way this works like it did last year is if we all play it together, as hard as we can.''

Nicole Powell provided a key boost of energy to the offense in her impressive first season with Sacramento, but the Monarchs need even more scoring from the Stanford star this season. Kristin Haynie is expected to improve as Ticha Penicheiro's backup at point guard, and Sacramento is hoping to get a full season out of Lawson.

But defense will always be king on Whisenant's teams -- and if the early weeks of the season are any indication, the Monarchs are back on track for title contention.

"Right now, we can't even score on each other in practice,'' Griffith said. "That's how good our defense is right now.''


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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