After watching the Sacramento Monarchs fall one game short of the WNBA finals last season for the third time in four years, coach and G.M. John Whisenant knew he needed to find some outside scoring. But he raised eyebrows around the league when he went looking for it on the bench of the Charlotte Sting, the WNBA's lowest-scoring team in '04.
"Most people thought I was foolish," says Whisenant, who last March traded the popular and productive Tangela Smith (at the time one of only 14 players in league history to have more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds) and a future draft pick to Charlotte for 6'2" forward Nicole Powell, the third selection in the 2004 draft, who had spent most of her rookie season battling in the paint or languishing on the bench, and reserves Olympia Scott-Richardson and Erin Buescher. "But I'm a horse racing guy who reads the Racing Form, and Nicole's racing form told me she has always been a good outside shooter."
His handicapping paid off. With Powell leading the WNBA in three-pointers made (66), the Monarchs won a franchise-record 25 games this season, a seven-victory improvement over last year, and finished first in the West, giving them home court advantage in the conference playoffs, which began this week. They were pitted in the first round against the two-time league champion Los Angeles Sparks (now coached by Joe Bryant, Kobe's dad), and barring an upset loss in that best-of-three series, they will have only the Seattle-Houston winner standing between them and their first WNBA finals appearance.
If Sacramento advances that far, it's likely that Powell will be a major reason. Playing the three, a position that produced no treys for the Monarchs last year, she averaged 10.7 points this season, up from 4.3 last year. She shot 41.5% from three-point range, and that accuracy took pressure off the team's only other deep threat, two guard Kara Lawson, and opened up the inside game for Yolanda Griffith, Rebekkah Brunson and DeMya Walker. "Nicole has had a major impact here," says Griffith. "When she gets it going, nobody can stop her."
That Powell can hit the three so proficiently gets lost on her crowded résumé. A former Parade All-America center at Mountain Pointe High in Phoenix, she earned Pac-10 freshman of the year honors at Stanford while filling in at point guard. In the following three seasons she earned three Kodak All-America awards and two Pac-10 player of the year honors playing mostly inside.
After averaging a double double (20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds) her senior season, she left Stanford as the school's top career rebounder (1,143), its third-leading career scorer (2,062 points) and the only player in Pac-10 history with more than one career triple double. (She had six.) Far down on her list of achievements is this: She ranks second among Cardinal players in three-pointers attempted (518) and made (201).
With Charlotte, Powell shot well from beyond the arc (41.4%) but not often (58 attempts.) She was "a little surprised," she says, when Whisenant told her of his plans to make her the Monarchs' top deep threat. "It's kind of funny because I'm not really known for my three-point shooting," says Powell. "But I was pleased. I played inside in college, but it's different in the pros. It's easier for me on the outside."
Turns out both she and Whisenant can hit the long shot.
The Other Matchups
Detroit versus Connecticut
The 2003 champion Shock, which acquired Olympian Katie Smith in a late-season trade, has five All-Stars in its lineup, including the league's best rebounding tandem, Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley (14.5 boards a game combined). But the Sun, which finished with the WNBA's best record, averages a league-high 16.8 assists per game, avoids turnovers and has four double-figure scorers (among them All-Stars Nykesha Sales and Taj McWilliams-Franklin).
New York versus Indiana
The Liberty is hurting: All-Star center Ann Wauters was sidelined with a broken right hand on Aug. 11, and standout forward-center Elena Baranova (left) missed the final regular-season game with a sprained right ankle. The Fever won the season series 3-1 and is led by forward Tamika Catchings, a top candidate for league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
Seattle versus Houston
The defending champion Storm is on a roll again, having finished the regular season with a nine-game home winning streak powered by guards Sue Bird and Betty Lennox and forward Lauren Jackson. The lower-seeded Comets have the WNBA's leading scorer in forward Sheryl Swoopes (18.6 points per game).