San Antonio 85, Sacramento 78
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Sept. 18, 2008 (AP) -- Becky Hammon was criticized for playing on Russia's Olympic team at this summer's Beijing Games and had to settle for a bronze medal while the U.S. team came home with gold.
Although the top international prize eluded her, perhaps a WNBA title won't. The gum-chewing, energetic guard made six 3-pointers and scored 30 points to give the San Antonio Silver Stars a 85-78 victory over the Sacramento Monarchs in the opener of the WNBA's Western Conference playoffs on Thursday night.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is Saturday in San Antonio. The Silver Stars posted a league-best 24-10 record in the regular season and were 15-2 at home.
Hammon, a veteran guard who is a league MVP contender this season, was the difference Thursday. She made her first six 3-point attempts, shot 9-of-14 overall, and hit four straight free throws late in the game to help seal the victory.
"Becky Hammon was on fire, a lot of her shots were contested,'' said Monarchs guard Ticha Penicheiro, who has matched up frequently against her off-court friend over the years. "Great players make great plays. I think she's very hungry to win a championship.''
Taking advantage of open looks early in the game, Hammon had an inkling this might be a special night when her first 3-point shot was seemingly way off the mark. But it hit the backboard and went in midway in the first quarter.
"When my first 3 was a bank shot, I thought this could be a pretty good night,'' said Hammon, who was two points shy of her playoff career high.
The Silver Stars played well down the stretch, winning their final five regular-season games to hold off Seattle and capture the Western Conference title. They were hoping to use that momentum to avoid what happened a year ago against the Monarchs.
The game was a contrast to last year's first-round meeting when Sacramento beat San Antonio 86-65 at home in Game 1. The Silver Stars rallied to win the series with two victories on their floor, including a two-point victory in Game 3.
"Sacramento came out ready to play last year, so this year we knew what kind of defense they played and really wanted to match their intensity,'' Sophia Young said.
Although Young did little to help build the early lead, she got going in the second half and finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Vickie Johnson had 13 points and eight assists for the Silver Stars, who led by 22 in the third quarter.
Penicheiro scored 19 points and had seven assists for Sacramento. Nicole Powell scored 16 points and Crystal Kelly had 12. Bothered by the defense of Johnson, Kara Lawson attempted only five shots and finished with seven points.
"Ticha had a tremendous game,'' Hammon said. "She caught us cheating (on Powell and Lawson) and made us pay.''
The Monarchs chipped away at the lead and got to 72-65 on a rare 3-pointer by Penicheiro with 3:31 remaining. Sacramento made it 82-78 with a 3-pointer by Lawson with 22 seconds left, but Johnson made three late free throws to secure the victory.
"Anytime you have a chance to come away with a win in Sacramento you've got to feel good,'' San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said. "This is a tough environment to play, and you can see why with the comeback they made on us.''
Hammon sparked the Silver Stars early. The All-Star made three 3 pointers and had 13 points by the midway point in the first half, helping San Antonio establish a 38-21 lead. The Silver Stars jumped ahead despite Young going scoreless in the first 17 minutes.
"We played a good second half and fought back, we just didn't start the game with that urgency you need against a team as good as San Antonio,'' Monarchs coach Jenny Boucek said.
Hammon jump-started the Silver Stars again to start the third quarter, hitting a 3-pointer and following with a three-point play that put San Antonio ahead 53-33.
Finally getting production from its bench, Sacramento slowed down the Silver Stars enough with its pressure defense to creep within 63-49 heading into the fourth quarter.
Missing injured starting forward Rebekkah Brunson and lacking its usual scoring punch from a deep reserve corps, Sacramento struggled to keep pace with the offensive-minded Silver Stars.
"We are going to have to play our best game of the year (on Saturday),'' Lawson said. "This is a team that has the best record in the WNBA and they play well together. We are trying to win a road game.''
Hammon scored 13 points in a flawless opening half and Buescher had nine for San Antonio, which led 45-29 at the break.