Las Vegas Aces Beat Sun for First WNBA Championship


UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With a championship on the line for a team with some of the W.N.B.A.’s biggest stars, the Las Vegas Aces leaned on Riquna Williams, who had scored in double digits just twice this postseason.

Williams raised her index finger to her lips to silence the Connecticut Sun’s white-knuckled fans in Game 4 of the finals as she hit one big shot after another in the fourth quarter. The last of her 17 points came on a step-back shot just inside the 3-point line over the outstretched arms of Natisha Hiedeman. Guard Kelsey Plum raised her hands, and Williams ran around the court with her arms spread wide as Sun fans began to leave.

The Aces defeated the Sun, 78-71, on Sunday to win their first W.N.B.A. championship, their postseason reflecting the regular-season dominance that led them to tie Chicago for the best record in the league.

The Aces led by as many as 10 but had to fight off several furious 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 of the finals.

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

The Aces finished with the best regular-season record in two of the past three seasons and second in the year they didn’t finish first. The Seattle Storm swept them in the 2020 finals. Las Vegas had shouldered the reputation of being a team good enough to win in the regular season but not able — or willing — to make the adjustments needed to succeed in the postseason. Its star-laden roster was seemingly too talented for its own good, with the best players often leaning on the isolation basketball they excel in but that has kept the Aces from closing out championships.

As the buzzer sounded on Sunday, the Aces players — now champions — yelled and hugged each other, their cheers of excitement bouncing around an otherwise quiet stadium that had been rocked with the deafening roars of Sun fans just moments before.

As Connecticut players exited the court in tears, Sun center Jonquel Jones walked the length of the floor into the Aces’ celebration to hug and congratulate Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson. As Jones walked away, she paused to clap and thank the fans that remained multiple times before heading to the locker room.

Bill Laimbeer, who had been the Aces’ coach for four years, stepped down before the season. The Aces hired Becky Hammon, who had been an assistant with the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs. She took over a team led by Wilson, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2020.

As Hammon guided the Aces to the first seed, she said she saw glimpses of the style of play that had kept the Aces from winning a title. But that shifted in the Aces’ semifinal win over the Storm, during which Hammon said the players were “choosing each other” and learned how to “take a punch.”

That proved true as the Aces found ways to win playoff games while their stars struggled and they faced deficits — finally shaking the reputation of a team with unfulfilled potential. Wilson, 26, also won her second M.V.P. Award this season and was named the defensive player of the year.

On Sunday, Hammon thanked Laimbeer for putting the team together and praised her players.

“What I’m most proud of is we became a real team out here, and a team that cares about each other and trusts each other,” she said.

Hammon said it was a “little surreal” to win her first W.N.B.A. championship. She played in the league for more than a decade, including several seasons with the Las Vegas franchise when it was in San Antonio. The team moved to Las Vegas in the 2018 season and drafted Wilson with the No. 1 overall pick.

“It was a battle,” Hammon said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

She said the Aces had “tremendous leadership” among the players, and that they had persisted when they weren’t playing well during the season. She applauded Williams for coming through on Sunday when the Aces had been struggling to score.

“She knows she’s got the ultimate green light,” Hammon said.

Williams’s scoring in the fourth quarter proved essential for Las Vegas as the Sun fought to force a fifth game. For the second straight game, forward Alyssa Thomas had a triple-double. She is the only player to have a triple-double in a W.N.B.A. finals game.

The loss for the Sun, the No. 3 seed, is another disappointing finish for a franchise with the second most wins in W.N.B.A. history but no championships.



Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/18/sports/basketball/aces-sun-wnba-finals-championship.html