October 6, 2022

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Las Vegas Ice beat Sun for their first WNBA Championship

Las Vegas Ice beat Sun for their first WNBA Championship

UNCASVILLE, Conn. With a championship on the line for a team with some of the WNBA’s biggest stars, the Las Vegas Aces have leaned on Riquna Williams, who has scored in double digits only twice this post season.

Williams raised her index finger to her lips to silence the white-knuckle Connecticut Sun fans in Game 4 of the Finals as she struck one big shot after another in the fourth quarter. Her last 17 points came with a graduated shot inside the three-point line over Natisha Heidemann’s outstretched arms. Guard Kelsey Plum raised her hands, and Williams ran around the court with her arms spread wide as Sun fans started to leave.

The Aces defeated The Sun, 78-71, on Sunday to win their first WNBA Championship, post-season reflecting their regular season dominance that led them to a tie with Chicago for the best record in the league.

The Aces lead up to 10 but had to battle several angry rallies by The Sun before clinching the title in the final minutes of Las Vegas’ third win in the Best of Five series. Chelsea Gray led the Aces with 20 points and was named the Most Valuable Player at the Finals.

“I worked really hard for this,” Gray said as she became emotional and her teammates cheered.

Gray and Aces’ loaded roster have kept Las Vegas one step ahead of the league all season. Four All-Stars Aces – Aja Wilson, Bloom, Jackie Young and Derica Hamby – were named and Bloom was voted the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. Wilson won the NBA Player of the Year award for the second time and was named Defensive Player of the Year. Becky Hammon, in her first season with the team, was named League Coach of the Year.

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But entering Game Four, Williams, who scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, had not scored more than 14 points all season. The Sun kept Wilson with just 11 points on Sunday, its third lowest performance in the playoffs.

“I have a really flexible group of players,” Hammon said, adding, “I saw different people advance at different moments tonight and that is what makes it so hard for us to win.”

The Aces finished with the best regular season record in two of the past three seasons and the second in the year they didn’t finish first. They were swept away by the Seattle Storm in the 2020 Finals. Las Vegas have built a reputation for being a team that is good enough to win the regular season but are unable – or willing – to make the adjustments necessary for post-season success. Their star-studded roster appears to have been too talented for its own good, with top players often relying on isolated basketball they excel at, but that has prevented the Aces from finishing championships.

This year, a large group of fans in red, black and gold Aces gear made their way to the lower levels of the Mohegan Sun Arena as Las Vegas players flooded the field after the game. It was an invaluable moment for Gray.

“I was on two teams and it was loud,” Gray said of the aces fan. “They will celebrate us and we will celebrate them.”

Last season, aces lost the crucial fifth game of the semi-finals to the Phoenix Mercury side, who celebrated on the aces field. Gray said the ending has stuck in her mind ever since.

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Now I’m going to have a different replay in my head,” Gray said with a smile.

As the bell rang out on Sunday, aces – now champions – shouted and hugged each other, their cheers bouncing from excitement around a quiet stadium that had been rocked by the roar of Sun fans just moments before.

As the Connecticut players walked off the field in tears, Sun Center Junkel Jones walked along the floor in an Ace celebration of a hug and congratulations to Wilson. When Jones walked away, she stopped clapping and thanking the fans who stayed before heading to the locker room. Jones physically dominated the Aces in The Sun’s only win of the series in Game 3, and almost led them to another victory in Game 4.

Wilson praised Jones after the match.

“I had to go and talk to her because she played such a big part of her heart,” Wilson said of Jones, who was the player of the year last season.

The loss of The Sun, ranked No. 3, is another disappointing end to a franchise with the second most wins in WNBA history but no championships. For the second match in a row, Sun striker Alyssa Thomas scored a hat-trick. She is the only player to earn a Triple Threat in the WNBA Finals.

Hamon said it was a “battle” to beat the sun. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” she said.

Bill Laimbere, who coached the Aces for four years, stepped down before the season. Aces hired Hammon, who was an NBA assistant for the San Antonio Spurs. She took charge of a team led by Wilson, who won her first MVP award in 2020.

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While Hammon was guiding the Aces to the top seed, she said she saw glimpses of the style of play that prevented the Aces from winning the title. But that turned around in the Aces’ semi-final win over Storm, with Hamon saying the players were “picking each other out” and learning how to “take the punch”.

This proved to be true because the Aces found ways to win knockout matches while their stars struggled and faced a deficit – exactly what happened on Sunday – that finally shook the reputation of a team with unrealized potential.

Hamon thanked Laimbeer for uniting the team and praised its players.

“What I am most proud of is that we have become a real team here, a team that cares about each other and trusts each other,” she said.

Hammon said winning her first WNBA Championship was “a bit surreal.” She played in the league for over a decade, including several seasons with the Las Vegas franchise when she was in San Antonio.

She said the Aces have “tremendous leadership” among the players, and that they have continued to keep up when they haven’t played well during the season. She praised Williams for his lead on Sunday when the Aces were struggling to score.

“She knows she got the absolute green light,” Hamon said.

Wilson also spoke about growth – her and her team’s growth.

“I know who I am now more than ever,” Wilson said. “I feel like I have established myself in this league. The Aces are not over yet.”