SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After waiting for a championship since the WNBA's founding season, the Sacramento Monarchs finally won it all in style — their own hard-nosed, defense-first style.
Yolanda Griffith had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and 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.
Ticha Penicheiro had six assists and made a free throw with 9.9 seconds left for the Monarchs, one of the league's original franchises. They lost in the Western Conference finals in three of the past four seasons, including a loss to Seattle last year.
But with seven victories in eight playoff games this season, Sacramento's revamped roster finally won it all with flair and force.
"I knew this was a special team when everybody reported to training camp," said Griffith, the finals MVP. "I knew then that we had something special. This has been the best season of my career. My teammates made this special. This is just unbelievable."
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, who finished with the WNBA's best regular-season record.
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 Nykesha 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.
Griffith, the veteran power forward who had never won a championship, requested a trade prior to the season when she thought the Monarchs were rebuilding. She went 1-for-6 in the first half of Game 4, but scored six quick points in the second half with her usual tenacious inside play.
Sacramento jumped to a 55-45 lead with an 11-3 run midway through the second half, with only Jones keeping the Sun close. Connecticut made a late rally for the second straight game, pulling to 57-56 with 2:57 to play when the Monarchs tightened up.
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.
The eight-year Sacramento veteran 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. Sales' desperate 3 didn't make it to the basket in the final second, and Sacramento inbounded the ball to finish it.
The players 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.
Penicheiro addressed the crowd.
"I know it's been eight long years you guys have been with us, waiting patiently for this moment," Penicheiro said. "Now we're the champions. We wanted to celebrate in front of you guys. We wouldn't be standing right here if it wasn't for you."
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.
After adding the sharpshooting Powell and a new defensive focus in the offseason, the Monarchs went 25-9 to finish with the conference's best record, then swept both early playoff rounds.
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.
"I'm proud. It's what I believe in," coach John Whisenant said. "That basket gets awful hard to make when you're under pressure situations like this game, but defense holds you in there."
After the raucous opening introductions, the Monarchs appeared to feel the pressure of shooting for the franchise's first title. They made five turnovers in the first six minutes, then managed just one field goal in a 5 1/2-minute stretch while Connecticut took an 11-point lead.
Playing with all the poise lacked by Sacramento, the Sun jumped to a 31-25 halftime lead. The Monarchs went 10-for-31 in the first half — and before they took the court again, Whisenant attempted to loosen up his team with a goofy knee-shaking dance in the huddle.
The players laughed, and it worked: Sacramento scored seven points in the first 93 seconds after halftime, taking its first lead on Brunson's tip-in.