Role reversal: Sky stun Aces with fourth-quarter comeback

Aces drop season opener as Chicago closes on an 11-0 run

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The Las Vegas Aces led by nine with less than five minutes remaining but did not score the rest of the way in Sunday’s season opener. The Chicago Sky, eliminated by the Aces on a go-ahead heave in the closing seconds in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, completed the comeback for the 88-86 victory. Angel McCoughtry led the way with a game-high 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting in her Aces debut. 

“I’m so blessed and glad to be out there,” McCoughtry said. “It was so surreal to me because I hadn’t been out there in so long. I think the team, we have a lot of potential. We just let it slip in the last two minutes. We had the game. But these are the learning experiences that we need for late in the season. It’s very, very early.” 

All 10 healthy Aces players saw the floor in Sunday’s opener, including Sugar Rodgers, who arrived in Florida earlier in the week and made it through the league protocol to officially join the team. Lindsay Allen drew the start at the point alongside McCoughtry and Kayla McBride, and Carolyn Swords joined A’ja Wilson in the frontcourt. 

“We had control of the game throughout and just didn’t make the right plays,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “They made some big shots; they made some big plays. We didn’t. End of story. It happens. Our team played better than I thought we were gonna play. I thought we played well. I was able to manage the minutes the best I could. And I thought overall, it was a good showing for us.” 

The Aces led by as many as 12 in the second half. As they did throughout the 2019 season, the team excelled in transition, led by McCoughtry and Dearica Hamby. The reigning Sixth Woman of the Year finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench. 

“I don’t think I did anything really out of the offense,” Hamby said. “Just kind of scoring off of hard work. I think I got like six points in transition. I think that’s, in general, where this team will get a lot of points. Especially me. Just because the conditioning’s a little bit different this season for a lot of teams. Me running and my energy is kind of my specialty. I think that’ll help our team get a lot of easy baskets.” 

Laimbeer got a look at multiple frontcourt combinations on Sunday, starting with Wilson and Swords. McCoughtry was the power forward for some brief stints. As expected, Dearica Hamby and Wilson played together quite a bit; that duo was on the floor together for most of the six-plus minutes of the fourth quarter.

The team also went big at times, sliding Hamby to the 3 as they did often last season. Avery Warley-Talbert logged 10 minutes in her Aces debut as the team’s center off the bench. Swords (19 minutes) was limited by some foul trouble in both halves. 

Wilson, previously limited by an ankle sprain in training camp, kicked off her third WNBA season with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes. She noted postgame that the ankle was not a limiting factor and that she was able to play her game without favoring it. Second-year guard Jackie Young played 29 minutes off the bench, and free-agent acquisition Danielle Robinson filled the remaining minutes at point guard behind Allen. 

Chicago polished off an impressive comeback in the fourth even as All-WNBA guard Diamond DeShields played just 15 minutes off the bench. The broadcast noted that the Sky have been monitoring some knee inflammation with their star guard. Kahleah Copper drew the start instead and scored a team-high 18 points.

Allie Quigley hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining coming out of a timeout. Stefanie Dolson set the screen on Young to free Quigley for a pass across the baseline from All-WNBA point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Young managed to stay in the play, but Quigley evaded her with a side step to the right. 

Still leading by one in the final minute, the Aces took a timeout after a key steal by McCoughtry. McCoughtry missed a pull-up jumper. Quigley hit that decisive 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. Laimbeer went to McCoughtry again at the top of the key. Coming off a screen set by Wilson, McCoughtry passed on the chance to attack one-on-one after drawing Dolson on a switch. McCoughtry found Rodgers for a 3-point attempt from the right corner instead. 

The Aces retained possession with 1.6 on the clock as the ball was knocked out of bounds. Laimbeer drew up a play for McCoughtry to look for Wilson on a lob in the middle of the lane. Gabby Williams switched onto Wilson and broke up the pass, securing the victory for Chicago. 

“I think I should’ve led better in the end,” McCoughtry said. “Those are some of my pet peeves when you have that game and you just let it slip through your fingers when you know you should’ve had that game. It’s still a learning experience. We’ll adjust and get back to the next one.”

Las Vegas shot 50 percent inside the arc but missed all five of their 3-point attempts, compared to Chicago’s nine makes on 27 attempts. Rodgers, one of the team’s best shooters, logged just two minutes on Sunday but had just joined the team on Sunday. McBride, who Laimbeer felt had some tired legs, went 0-for-7 from the field in just 17 minutes. 

“We’ve gotta find some perimeter shooting, obviously,” he said. “We didn’t make any three balls today. They made nine. That was probably, at the end of the day, statistics-wise, the difference of the game. But I can’t do anything about that right now. We were built for a different way with Liz [Cambage] and with [Kelsey] Plum sniping on the perimeter. We don’t have those players. So we’re gonna have to find a way to make due.”

Laimbeer added that, for now, four-minute bursts feel like a good target early in the season for McCoughtry. Rodgers just arrived. Finding more minutes for her will give the team another 3-point shooter on the floor. The Aces do have an open roster spot to fill, though, after waiving Alex Bentley last week. Ultimately, Laimbeer had to make a tough decision because of the time Bentley (knee) had already missed, and the nature of the injury made him worry about her availability upon her return to the practice floor.

“I told Alex that this was a very bad year for situations to happen,” he told reporters earlier in the week. “No fault of her own, basically. She came in in good shape; she came in competing. She ended up with an injury that had a potential to be an in-and-out injury. And so we couldn’t take the risk. We knew she was gonna be out at least seven days going forward. And then she’s been out for seven or eight days already on the front end. 

“When she came back on the court, to start pounding that same injury again, she may be out for another seven to 10 days. And then what do I do? I can’t bring somebody in. That’s going to take eight to 14 days, or whatever the time frame is. A business decision had to be made on that. We needed to have somebody here that we could count on in practice every day. May not put ‘em in the game...I just couldn’t trust that situation, so we had to make a hard decision. I feel bad for the player, but this is the business of this.” 

Coming off the opener, the Aces have two days off before their first stretch (three games) of several in which they’ll be playing every other day. McCoughtry playing well in 26 minutes along with Wilson rebounding from the ankle sprain are the most important takeaways in the grand scheme of things. 

Wilson, reiterating that the ankle felt fine on Sunday, brought the focus back to what she and her peers are focused on most this season. 

“We’re here for something bigger,” Wilson said. “And that’s what I’m doing. I’m playing for the name that is on the back of my jersey. That’s Breonna Taylor. She demands justice. We are here; we are playing for her. So the more I’m out there playing, the more I’m giving it my all, the more her name is being said and being seen.” 

Added McCoughtry on stepping on the floor for the first time this season, seeing an idea she pushed for so passionately on display all weekend by the league: “It felt great. It just felt like all of the hard work off the court has paid off. People are recognizing all of the initiatives to bring change into our country—definitely for Breonna Taylor and her family. They deserve justice. I’m so proud of the league in what they’ve done advocating for social injustice.”