Salt Lake City Few people expected the Utah Starzz to reach the WNBA's Western Conference finals. And that's exactly what coach Candi Harvey plans to keep reminding them.
"All season, we haven't gotten any respect," Harvey said Wednesday.
"That's not sour grapes. It's just the truth."
The Starzz might not get any respect, but they've got momentum. Utah beat Houston 75-72 Tuesday, winning the first-round series 2-1 to advance to play the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks.
It was the first time Utah, a WNBA charter franchise, won a postseason matchup, another milestone in a season where the Starzz had a franchise-record 20 wins and their first-ever postseason victory.
Of course, that doesn't mean Utah is favored now.
"We still are the underdogs," said forward Natalie Williams. "I don't think a lot of people around the league really like L.A., so I think a lot of people will be pulling for us."
The series begins tonight at the Delta Center, following Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals matching New York at Washington.
New York is making its fifth trip in six years to the conference finals.
Vickie Johnson scored 19 points and the Liberty shot 62 percent in the second half of a 75-60 win against Indiana, eliminating the Fever 2-1.
Washington, meanwhile, swept Charlotte 2-0.
The Starzz used comments by Sparks star Lisa Leslie as billboard material in the Houston series. After the Sparks swept Seattle, Leslie was asked during a television interview which team the Sparks preferred to meet.
"What I said was everybody wants to see the Houston-L.A. matchup, and that's what I anticipated as well," Leslie recalled. "But I did say in that same breath, 'Don't underestimate the Starzz. They are a very good team.' "
The first part, though, was all it took to motivate Utah, which survived a heartbreaking double-overtime loss in Game 2 to Houston.
"We weren't supposed to do anything," said Adrienne Goodson, who averaged 15.7 points this season in Harvey's new triangle offense.
"That's what made it so much fun. The whole thing was set up against us."
Don't expect the attitude to change in the Western finals. Los Angeles swept the season series, beating Utah by an average score of 92-79.
Leslie said what happened earlier, though, is irrelevant. She noted that Goodson is having her best season, and that 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek is a defensive force in the middle.
Shooting guard Marie Ferdinand, meanwhile, has grown into a consistent scoring threat. And Williams, after a quiet season, has stepped up in the playoffs, scoring 25 points to eliminate Houston.
"I've always believed we had the ingredients," Goodson said. "It was just a matter of putting the people in place to where we could do the right things."
Add it up, and Leslie thinks the Sparks will be challenged.
"I respect Utah. They're a tough team," she said.
"Even though we've beaten them, we totally respect them as our opponent. You cannot sleep on Utah and we never have."
That won't stop Harvey from using the first-round motivational ploy. She plans to remind the Starzz they were forgotten all season but they're poised to crash the WNBA Finals.
"It's about never seeing us on TV and never hearing about us over the course of the year when we had the third-best record in the league," Harvey said.
"Somebody needs to give us some love here."