August 27, 2021 

A close win, ugly loss signal Aces’ need to tighten up

The Aces looked more like themselves Thursday than they did earlier in the week, albeit not fully until the second half

The Las Vegas Aces followed up an uncharacteristically ugly loss to the Connecticut Sun with a close win over an injury-riddled Atlanta Dream Thursday night. As the playoff race looms, now just isn’t the time for the Aces to slip into bad habits and rough starts.

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While it’s encouraging to see Vegas able to bounce back after such a blow, it is somewhat concerning to see them still struggle at times with some of the same issues that have been plaguing them all season long.

Namely, putting their best play on the court right out the gate and having a top-notch defense.

Better, but not great

The Aces looked more like themselves Thursday than they did earlier in the week, albeit not fully until the second half.

They still looked like they were dragging their feet through the mud at times throughout the first half, despite some bright spots like a strong presence off the glass and in the paint.

When it was all said and done, Vegas finished things with four players in double-digit scoring: A’ja Wilson (21), Dearica Hamby (20), Liz Cambage (17) and Jackie Young (10). Hamby especially was ruthless off the bench, driving through traffic, pushing the pace and bringing in 9 rebounds for her squad.

Head coach Bill Laimbeer, who notched his 300th career win Thursday night (more on that later), attributed some of his team’s early-game sluggishness to having a bit of a hangover from Tuesday’s ugly showing against the Connecticut Sun.

“I tried to press upon our players before the game started that this was a defensive game, that we’ve got to go out and play defense. They didn’t hear me very well for the first half,” Laimbeer said after the game. “The second half, we turned the defense on … But we need to put together a 40-minute game … Hopefully it’s a learning experience, it’s like a new season for us right now down the stretch as we’re going to try to keep building day by day.”

Most importantly, the team’s leader and reigning league MVP Wilson seemed back in her groove Thursday night, after putting up just 4 points against the Sun. And snapping her streak of consecutive double-digit scoring performances at 53.

Thursday, Wilson nearly had a triple-double after dropping 21 points, hauling in 12 rebounds and dishing out 7 assists.

“When you’re playing against Atlanta, you don’t want to get in a foot race with them because that’s what they do — that’s their system,” Wilson said after the game. “So for us, we have to figure out what our system is and stick to it no matter what. On the defensive side, I think in the first half we were lackadaisical and we can’t do that against a good team like Atlanta. We kind of got back on our horse in the second half and got back to Aces defense and our basketball.”

On Tuesday, Connecticut head coach Curt Miller acknowledged what a tough team the Aces can be, even when they aren’t playing at their peak, and what those crucial wins mean to the Sun.

“We had a great series against Vegas this year, but we competed really hard,” Miller said after Tuesday’s win over the Aces. “Tonight, we won without JJ having a huge game. She came through with a ton of rebounds late and stayed and continued to contribute. But we just had trouble establishing her offensively. So it proved to our group you can go toe to toe with the best of the best, even when a player might have not their typical night.”

Vegas won’t be able to give up an inch heading into the playoffs. They’ve said it themselves all season long: there’s a target on their backs, they’re the team to beat. Sloppy first halves are going to lend way to tough losses as teams gain confidence over them down the stretch. The Aces need to be able to take a punch, yes. But it’s just as important they punch back, especially at this point in the season.

Angel’s dream

Angel McCoughtry hasn’t played in front of fans in over three years. She’s spent all of this season recovering from an ACL injury. But was listed as “questionable” for the first time ahead of Thursday’s game.

She checked into the game with 7.9 seconds left; making her first appearance in Atlanta since leaving the team in free agency before the 2020 season.

The idea was actually Laimbeer’s — it came to him during shootaround before the game. He said he felt if there was a chance to get McCoughtry in the game; he was going to take it, knowing how much it’d mean to her. Luckily, the opportunity presented itself.

“When Bill asked me if I wanted to play today and get in the game for a couple of seconds, I was ecstatic, I was ready,” McCoughtry said after the game. “The plan was for me to go in the corner. When I got into the corner the ball was passed to me, and that wasn’t the plan so I didn’t know if I should shoot or not! So my shot was out of confusion. But usually I’m knocking that down so that’s why I missed that shot. There’s no word that can describe the feeling. It was just an amazing day.”

If you didn’t know, Angel and Atlanta go way back. All the way back to 2009 in fact, when she was selected No. 1 overall by the Dream. There, she was a five-time All-Star, six-time All-WNBA selection, seven-time All-Defensive Team honoree and 2009 Rookie of the Year, among other accolades. She also helped lead her team to the Finals in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

In addition to her game-time excellence, McCoughtry loves to take rookies and young players under her wing. One of those rookies was Dream guard Tiffany Hayes, who got to share the floor with Angel in her return last night.

“It was good to see Angel, I haven’t seen her on the court since I don’t even remember,” Hayes said after the game. “I wasn’t here last year or the year before, so it was definitely good to see her. I was her rookie coming in, she was my vet. It was good to see her at least touch the floor tonight.”

Aces’ Angel McCoughtry and Dreams’ Tiffany Hayes embrace after the game. Photo via Twitter, @LVAces.

WNBA Twitter was losing its collective mind when the Aces’ injury report surfaced yesterday with Angel listed as “questionable.” While it was cool to see her return to the Dream’s home court for this special moment, Laimbeer made it clear after the game she won’t see any action this season as she continues to recover from her ACL injury.

Unfortunately, these things take time. For now, take joy in the fact we got to see this incredible moment for Angel, in the house she helped build.

300 dubs for Bill

On Thursday night, Laimbeer became just the second coach in WNBA history to reach 300 regular-season wins, behind Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault.

Laimbeer isn’t the kind to talk in-depth about his own accomplishments — he’d rather hype up his players’ performances or simply let the action on the court speak for itself. But Wilson wasn’t going to let him get off that easy, while also emphasizing the winning isn’t over yet.

“It’s big, and congratulations to Bill — he’s probably like, ‘I don’t really care,'” Wilson said of her coach’s milestone. “I’m glad I could just be a part of some of those wins. The best is yet to come with this franchise and we’re glad to have someone like Bill who is not going to back down from anyone. He’s a players’ coach and we’re just glad to be alongside him.”

There’s still a ways to go to the ultimate goal, too. While the Aces have enjoyed heaps of success so far this season, they’re still hungry for more. Specifically, for what they narrowly missed out on last year — a WNBA championship. Not to mention, a ring this year would be Laimbeer’s fourth, tying him with Houston’s Van Chancellor (1997-2000) and Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017).

For now, though, his team is focusing on the task at hand. Not seeding, not hoisting a trophy, not an uncharacteristic loss, just winning the next game.

“I think we’re just doing us — we have to get some things figured out within our team and our system and continue to be Aces, stay within us and have fun doing it,” Wilson said. “I don’t look at the seeding because at the end of the day, we’re playing for something that’s bigger than us.”

Up next, the Aces will take on the Indiana Fever on the road at 10 a.m. PT. After that, they’ll have just six games between them and the playoffs.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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