October 18, 2023 

DOUBLED DOWN: Las Vegas Aces comeback secures second straight title behind Wilson, Young

Aces become first team in 21 years to repeat as champions

BROOKLYN — Between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, Las Vegas had gone from holding all the cards to having its back against the wall. But with A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young, the team still had pocket aces.

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A 38-25 run over the final 17.5 minutes drove the Las Vegas Aces to a 70-69 win over New York Liberty to win their second-straight WNBA Finals, becoming the first team to repeat as champions since the 2001-02 Sparks. The Liberty held double-digit leads at different points over the first three quarters, but Vegas found its footing more and more as the game wore on. Wilson had 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting with eight rebounds in the second half while playing some of the best defense the Finals have ever seen, while Young scored nine points in the fourth quarter on just four shots.

Wilson finished the game with a 24-point, 16-rebound double-double to win Finals MVP, while Young ended with 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones combined for just 16 points on 6-for-25 from the field and eight turnovers.

“We came ready to play,” said Wilson. “We kept our foot on the gas. [In] Game 3 they had us; Game 3 was a little stinker, I ain’t gonna lie. But we weathered the storm and we came back.”

“You can’t recreate it. This was created by a lot of great people being great at their jobs,” Becky Hammon said.

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The Aces went into the fourth quarter up 53-51 after winning the third by 11 points, their first lead since the 4:43 mark of the first quarter. And that fourth quarter started as emphatically as possible: Young hit a tough post bucket against Betnijah Laney, Wilson sealed Jones and finished through contact off a good entry from Young who hit a pull-up three with a hand in her face, the latter two sandwiching a pair of Stewart free-throws. A 7-2 run to start what could be a championship-deciding period. Timeout, Liberty.

Stewart committed an offensive foul out of the timeout, but New York was able to string together three straight stops, generating a transition bucket for Laney and a step-in 3-pointer for Sabrina Ionescu, each stop and score generating more thunderous cheers than the last. The Liberty closed the gap to two points, and Hammon called a timeout.

The teams traded buckets back and forth and back, so Hammon called another timeout. After which the teams again traded scoring possessions, the Aces buoyed by otherworldly defense from Wilson and Young finding a tough bucket and getting to the line, but a couple of Liberty mistakes and Wilson on a heater put Vegas up 70-64. Timeout, Liberty.

Coming out of their second-to-last timeout, New York’s play didn’t work, and the ball found Courtney Vandersloot, who had struggled massively in the two games in Vegas before finding the net in Game 3. Down five, she drilled a 3-pointer with a hand in her face. Her fourth 3-pointer of the game, her team-leading 19th point of the night, to keep the Liberty alive. Kelsey Plum found her in iso not 30 seconds later, but Vandersloot picked her pocket to get the Liberty running. Ionescu hit a pull-up middy in Sydney Colson’s face to cut the lead to one with 41.7 seconds left.

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New York could have forced another turnover on the Aces’ ensuing possession, but Hammon made one of the most heads-up timeout calls in Finals history. They didn’t score off the after-timeout play, but the action forced the Liberty to bleed precious time off the clock pushing downcourt. Timeout, New York. With eight seconds left, the Liberty had one chance left. But even with big injuries, Vegas had the talent to stay straight-up on Stewart and the athletes to generate enough defensive pressure to force New York to start desperately passing around it. The Liberty never got a good look, and the final buzzer sounded, a near-sellout crowd slowly realizing that the franchise’s most exciting season in over two decades was over.

“This one’s sweeter, it just is,” Hammon said about comparing the Aces’ title this year and last. “It’s harder to do. We went from darlings to villains, real quick. … This is the tightest group I’ve ever been around, and they’re a special group. I don’t know what else you could throw at them.”

With Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes both out due to foot injuries, Hammon turned to Alysha Clark and Cayla George to fill their spots in the starting lineup. That wasn’t asking much of Clark, the Sixth Player of the Year having averaged only four fewer minutes in the playoffs compared to Stokes. George, on the other hand, had never started a WNBA playoff game and hadn’t even started in any WNBA game since 2018, a game in which she still finished eighth in minutes on her own team.

The Aces didn’t do anything special defensively in the first quarter, but the second was when things got weird. Within New York’s first five possessions, Vegas threw at them a box-and-one where the “one” was on Marine Johannès, what looked like a triangle-and-two where Johannès and Jones were the “two” but the Aces were hard-switching on Jones, and a 2-3 matchup zone.

The Liberty were frustrated, and Sandy Brondello had to call a timeout. New York got five quick points from Laney to get some breathing room, which almost entirely disappeared once Stefanie Dolson subbed in, Wilson and Plum targeting her often to close the gap to just one point. But nine unanswered points in the last 90 seconds of the half put the Liberty up 39-30 at the half.

New York came out of halftime looking, for the first time, like the offense the same offense we’d seen all year. An Ionescu stepback 3-pointer and some flashy passing from her and Vandersloot pushed the Liberty ahead by 12, but a pair of George threes and some missed layups from New York kept the Aces hanging around. And that meant a nearly four-minute span in which Wilson personally outscored the Liberty 9-5 could bring Vegas right back in it.

“I knew I had to make sure that our guards knew that I was back there with them no matter what and they could trust me,” Wilson said. “Let’s not get it twisted, New York got a lot of weapons … but if we can mess it up a little bit and make them think a little bit, then we win.”

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To say the Liberty had a rough start would be an understatement; despite generating quality looks early thanks to mismatches for Stewart, Jones or Laney, they simply couldn’t get the ball to fall through the hoop. Meanwhile, the Aces took an early lead as Wilson and Clark took Jones and Ionescu to the cup, respectively.

But New York wasn’t going to stay cold forever. Vegas slowed down as George effectively committed back-to-back turnovers, and the Liberty started taking advantage of the limitations of the Aces’ lineup: First a little hot potato between the left corner and slot to get an open 3-pointer for Vandersloot because Vegas’ slower starting lineup meant it could not send help; on the next play, the Aces forced Vandersloot to switch onto George, but with the center being a non-scoring threat, Vandersloot was able to ignore her to dig onto Wilson and force a turnover, leading to an Ionescu transition three. Just like that, New York was on an 8-2 run, taking an 11-9 lead into the media timeout that would last them until the end of the third quarter.

With an and-1 and a 3-pointer, Vandersloot scored the first six points out of the stoppage, and the Liberty led 23-13 after the first quarter. Then Vegas started throwing the kitchen sink.

“We know we’re better than what we did, but credit to Vegas,” said Brondello. “They just found a way.”

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

1 Comment

  1. RM Williams on October 19, 2023 at 10:35 am

    Watching the game, it became painfully evident that after the first quarter, Las Vegas wanted it, and the Liberty didn’t. It’s that simple. Neither team was a scoring machine, and equal turnovers (13 apiece) didn’t help. Slooty had 5 of New York’s turnovers. Neither team has a credible bench. The Liberty had 6 bench points and the Aces had 2. Would the Aces have rolled it up earlier with Gray and Stokes? Probably. Credit Vegas for the adjustments they made. Cayla George did a credible job with so little playing time. The barrels were empty or misfiring for the Liberty’s big guns. The quote from Sandy Brondello, We know we’re better than what we did…” makes one ask, “OK, but how much? And are you sure?” Are New York’s free agents going to re-sign or not? Are the Aces going to objectively look at their bench and make changes? Between free agency and the draft, there are probably numerous permutations of what every team can do, and both these teams need to take a hard look at what they have and what they need for the future.
    All credit to the Aces. It was not a pretty game, but they did it, with guts and determination and focus. Not a bad trifecta for winning.

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