August 17, 2021 

Aces shake off golden rust, look toward championship

A'ja Wilson will be the first to admit she's tired, but she won't let that stop her from helping her team win

A’ja Wilson will be the first to admit she’s tired, but she won’t let that stop her from helping her team win.

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After bringing home the gold for USA Women’s Basketball 5×5 just over a week ago, Wilson and Chelsea Gray are back in Las Vegas playing WNBA games again. They rejoin 3×3 gold medal Olympians Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, who have had a little more time to recover and get back in the Aces’ swing of things.

JiSu Park was also in Tokyo playing for Team South Korea, while Liz Cambage opted out of the Games and instead took time off, later training in Los Angeles before heading back to Sin City.

But playing in the Olympics, not to mention winning the tournament, is no simple task — and it showed on the court early in Sunday’s game against the Washington Mystics.

The Aces came out sluggish and disjointed, trailing by as many as 21 points. They were able to shift the tide in their favor in the fourth quarter. And won (84-83) thanks to a record-setting comeback and a clutch shot from Gray.

Head coach Bill Laimbeer called it a “hard lesson without the pain.”

“We pulled one out that we probably shouldn’t have, but the lesson is that we have to play hard against every team in this league. We did it for a quarter, hit or miss. That can’t happen. We want to compete for a championship, we’ve got to show up every night, every minute, every day and play hard.”

Bill Laimbeer after Sunday’s game.

Laimbeer also attributed some of the team’s troubles to not being able to practice properly, saying he didn’t have enough players or practice fill-ins to get a competitive situation going. This, combined with some post-Olympics exhaustion, led to miscues, bad shots and poor defense for much of the game.

Despite admitting she is human after all and is feeling the strain of having the Olympics squeezed into the middle of the WNBA season, Wilson still managed to pour on 10 points in the game’s final frame. With the help of five assists from Gray and nine more points from a well-rested Cambage; the Mystics watched their lead slip away.

Even with limited full-squad practice time, the Aces still found a way to dig deep and pull out the win. After the game, Cambage talked about why she decided to pull out of the Olympics and highlighted her teammates’ tenacity.

“I was in a place where I was like, ‘I can’t give you anything — I’m exhausted,’ So I’m really happy I took that break. I put me first, and I put the Aces first because if I went, there would be no way I could have returned, and it’s happened before… I have no idea how Sue and Diana have done it five times, but I tip my hat off to those girls and A’ja coming in with 20 and 10 again tonight. Those girls are killers.”

Liz Cambage after Sunday’s game.

For the Olympians in Las Vegas, the grind doesn’t stop. Now that the Games are over, it’s on to the next big thing: fighting for a WNBA Championship. But first, let’s take a look back at two of the inaugural Olympic 3×3 gold medalists, Plum and Young.

The road to gold

Picture this. You’re on vacation, expecting a cool three weeks of relaxation when you get a phone call inviting you to Tokyo. You’ve been dreaming of this opportunity forever, so you take it and the next thing you know; you’re at the Olympics playing 3×3 basketball for the first time in over a year.

This is how Young found herself competing alongside Plum for a gold medal; just days after she was chilling on the beach.

Young says it was worth it to abandon her three-week break from the W to represent her country in Japan on sports’ biggest stage.

“It’s something you’ve thought about your whole life since you were a kid. To finally have that gold medal around your neck is like, ‘Wow, I really did this.’ It’s an amazing feeling and I’m super honored to be on the 3×3 team.”

Jackie Young on winning gold.

And she thrived. Young stepped in and fit in, helping drive the team through the tournament. And straight for the first 3×3 gold medal for Team USA (and ever). She says she hadn’t played 3×3 since Feb. 2020 at a training camp but thanked her ability to jump right into the action and learn plays quickly.

Young looked just as dynamic, quick and selfless on the half-court as she does at The House.

“I knew she’s a competitor — she’s going to come in ready to play, and she did just that. It was cool to see her come in and just soak up all the information in the time all of us had been together. She did a phenomenal job. That’s not an easy situation to be in.”

Kelsey Plum on teammate Jackie Young.

As for Plum herself, she is having quite the post-Achilles-injury recovery season with the Aces. She’s been deadly off the bench all year, providing that extra push. And serving as a spark plug for her team in the heat of the game. Her relentless work ethic has proven her ultimate weapon, as she’s pushed herself through recovery and, now, to the podium.

“Winning gold is a feeling that’s hard to describe. You get chills when you see the flag and you get to represent your country. After the experience was over, I look back and every time there was resistance or struggle in the journey, I’d always look to this moment and for it to happen. Everything was worth it.”

Kelsey Plum on recovering from her Achilles injury.

With four gold medals in hand (or rather, around necks); the Aces now set their eyes toward the WNBA playoffs and winning it all. They sit in first place right now (16-6) with just ten days left in the regular season.

Up next, the Aces will take on the Mystics again tonight at 7 p.m. PT.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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