All season long, Sacramento's defense and 10-player rotation have been a big part of the team's success. The Monarchs simply wear down their opponents, and that seemed to be the difference midway through the second half of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday.
Connecticut, which had led by four points at halftime, began turning over the ball as Sacramento's energy and relentless pursuit took a toll on the Sun. When you're tired, you make mental errors, and that translated into 11 second-half turnovers for Connecticut which helped pave the way for a 69-65 Sacramento win.
But on Thursday, just 24 hours later, Connecticut's players appeared to have more in the tank. While the Monarchs and their tired legs heaved some uncharacteristic air balls down the stretch, the Sun seemed a little more aggressive on the boards and quicker in transition.
On Friday, as he looked ahead to Sunday's Game 3 matchup (ABC, 4 p.m. ET), Sacramento coach John Whisenant acknowledged that he might have played his stars too many minutes in the second of back-to-back games. In the regular season, no one on Sacramento's roster averaged more than 29 minutes. But three Monarchs are averaging at least five additional minutes per game in the Finals. Center Yolanda Griffith played 37 minutes in Game 2 after battling for 28 the night before. Wing Nicole Powell played 39 minutes in Game 2. And Kara Lawson, a shooting guard who also has been used to spell injured Ticha Penicheiro at the point, played 29 minutes in Game 2, eight more than her regular-season average.
Powell and Lawson have the green light from Whisenant, but their shot selection seemed off Thursday. With Sacramento nursing a slim lead in the second half, it took ill-advised 3-pointers but also rushed shots, sometimes putting the ball up with as many as 12-15 seconds left on the shot clock.
Game 2 was a tough loss, Whisenant said, but he has been quick to remind his Monarchs that they came home with exactly what they had aimed for: one road win. Sacramento's Game 1 victory is especially huge because the series is now down to three games, with two of them at the Monarchs' Arco Arena. That gives Sacramento the homecourt advantage now, especially since the Monarchs were a league-best 15-2 at home in the regular season.
And although they are two of those intangibles you can't put too much trust in, you should never underestimate what an advantage it is for players to be able to sleep in their own beds, in the comfort of their own environments. And, Sacramento officials say, more than 12,000 tickets have been sold, so Arco will be rocking.
And don't forget that it took a defensive breakdown for Sacramento to lose.
That said, Connecticut played very well Thursday, especially without star point guard Lindsay Whalen. Coming off the overtime victory, Connecticut will be riding an incredible wave of momentum, and Whalen's likely return -- she sat out Game 2 after suffering a sprained left ankle while already nursing a nondisplaced fracture of the tibia in her left knee -- will be another boost.
All five Sun starters are great shooters, and Connecticut will look to continue to be aggressive and push tempo. That means the Monarchs must establish their defense early. Sacramento's success is based on its athleticism, and the Monarchs must close out on Connecticut's shooters and prevent the Sun from driving.
Connecticut coach Mike Thibault did a good job of mixing up his defense in Game 2, and the brief zone the Sun deployed against Penicheiro was effective. Penicheiro, as Whisenant said, struggled Thursday, playing her second game in as many days on her own sore ankle, a severe sprain suffered prior to the West finals.
But for as much as it's important for the Monarchs to recover physically from Game 2, the mental preparation for Sunday is equally important. Walker is no doubt kicking herself for leaving Brooke Wyckoff wide open for a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.0 seconds left in regulation -- "DeMya just reacted instinctively to our teaching style," Whisenant said -- but she's a veteran and just needs to put it behind her.
Also, because Sacramento's defense generates its offense, Rebekkah Brunson -- a defensive and rebounding specialist -- must stay out of foul trouble. She played only 16 minutes in Game 2 and wasn't a factor.
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.