LOS ANGELES, Sept. 11 -- Call it a WNBA Finals internship.
Although no player on the Detroit Shock roster has appeared in a Finals game, two of them are well aware of the pressure and intensity that comes with a championship atmosphere. All-Star forward Swin Cash and center Ruth Riley both won NCAA titles during their college careers, flourishing in the spotlight of the ultimate stage.
Swin Cash looks to add a WNBA championship to her NCAA title she won with UConn.
Gregory Shamus/WNBAE/Getty Images
And while they agree that experience will help them prepare mentally as they look ahead to Friday's Game 1 against the defending-champion Los Angeles Sparks, they also acknowledge that the level of competition in the WNBA Finals presents an entirely new challenge.
In 2001, Riley led Notre Dame to a comeback win over Purdue in the women's NCAA championship game, scoring four points -- including two free throws with 5.8 seconds to go -- and grabbing a clutch rebound in the final minute. She finished with 28 points and 13 boards and was named MVP of the Final Four.
The following year, Cash's University of Connecticut team -- which also featured Seattle's Sue Bird and Minnesota's Tamika Williams -- bulldozed its way to a 39-0 season, ultimately defeating Oklahoma for the title. Cash posted 20 points and 13 rebounds in the finale, and, like Riley, took home Final Four MVP honors.
Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that both players have stepped up their games in the WNBA postseason. Through five playoff games, Cash is scoring 18.4 points per game, compared to 16.6 during the regular season, while Riley is averaging 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.00 blocks, topping her season numbers of 9.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.71 bpg.
"I think that Swin and I can both draw on winning a championship, although it is on a different level," said Riley. "You have to be mentally tough to win a title. But at the same time, we're at a level up. At the professional level, the athletes are better, the stakes are higher, so it's a new setting for us as well."
"I think a lot of players on this team have been in the NCAA Tournament and they understand that it's win or die and is lot of pressure," she said. "This is a three-game series if need be. We just have to play every minute like it's our last, and I think if we can take that into this series, we'll be alright."
Despite the talk about mental toughness and an aggressive approach, however, Riley's point regarding the superiority of the professional ranks compared to college is an important one, one that strikes a chord with Sparks coach Michael Cooper.
"Detroit reminds me of us three years ago," he said.
What happened three years ago was that Los Angeles rolled to a 28-4 regular-season record and went into the WNBA playoffs as the favorite. After summarily dispatching Phoenix 2-0 in the first round, they were swept by Houston in the Western Conference Finals.
"The NCAA tournament experience they have certainly helps," he observed, "but up here it's a totally different atmosphere. The players are bigger, they're faster, they jump higher. We learned in 2000 against Houston that it's a whole different ballgame."
The question for Cash, Riley and the rest of the Shock then becomes, how does their college championship experience affect their confidence in going into the WNBA Finals, not only in their own abilities, but also in those of their teammates?
"Our composure has been the biggest surprise for me this year," said Shock coach Bill Laimbeer. "We don't panic at all. We get down 10 and we're still plugging away. We don't get nervous. We make some of the biggest shots and the biggest plays because we have confidence in ourselves."
Said Cash, "There's no other team that I'd rather be coming into the Finals with than this one. I think we've proven all year long that we're capable of playing great basketball. We mesh really well on the court, and when it's time to win the game in the clutch, this team has always come through.
"I'd take my chances with this team before any other."