Former Gamecock A’ja Wilson leads Las Vegas Aces to WNBA title
UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — Chelsea Gray scored 20 points to lead the Las Vegas Aces to their first WNBA title in a 78-71 road win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 on Sunday.
Gray went 9 of 13 from the floor, and was named MVP after averaging 18 points over the run. The Aces improved to 4-0 in this year’s playoffs with two days rest.
Riquana Williams added 17 points Kelsey Plum added 16 points for the Aces, Jackie Young had 13 and league MVP A’ja Wilson added 11 points to go with 14 rebounds.
Vegas finished on an 8-0 run. As the buzzer sounded Wilson grabbed the ball and stomped the floor before being mobbed by her teammates.
We champs! We champs! We champs!” Wilson screamed at teammates as they pulled on their championship hats and T-shirts before the trophy ceremony.
It’s the first major pro sports title for a team from Las Vegas, and Wilson surely hopes this is just the beginning.
“You see it. You see it,” Wilson said in the on-court celebration. “This is what we’re building. This is what we’re doing. This is it. I’m so happy right now.”
Courtney Williams had 17 points to lead Connecticut and Alyssa Thomas had her second straight triple-double with 11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. Jonquel Jones added 13 points and DeWanna Bonner had 12.
Las Vegas led by two points at the half and four points after three quarters.
For Aces coach Becky Hammon, who didn’t get a title in her standout WNBA career, the ring completed a decades-long quest. She left an assistant coach position with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs to take over in Las Vegas, and the move paid off.
“They’re unbelievable on the court but they’re unbelievable humans, first and foremost,” Hammon said. “They care about each other. They invest in each other. It’s been an absolute honor to be their coach. I saw excellence and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Hammon also paid tribute to former Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, who was on the floor for the ceremony. “He put this team together and saw the pieces,” Hammon said.
Aces owner Mark Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, wasn’t with his football team Sunday. He was in Connecticut to get a trophy. He hoisted it, then turned it over to gleeful players who did the same.
“Las Vegas, we are world champions,” Davis said.
It was a six-point lead in the fourth when Kelsey Plum was called for a flagrant foul after running into Bonner while the Sun guard was attempting a 3-pointer and sending her to the floor holding her right ankle. Bonner hit all three free throws before Jonquel Jones short jumper cut the lead to a point. The Sun then tied the game at 67 on free throw by Courtney Williams and took a 71-70 lead on two fouls shots from Brionna Jones.
But Las Vegas had the answers.
Riquana Williams 3-pointer put the Aces back on top and Chelsea Gray’s step-back jumper extended the lead back to 75-71 with under a minute left A’Ja Wilson then stole a pass and Plum hit a short jump shot to secure the win.
Bonner opened the scoring with a leaner from the left wing. But Kelsey Plum’s 3-pointer from the left baseline sparked an early 12-0 run for Vegas that shot them out to a 16-6 lead. The Aces, who gave up 34 points to the Sun in in first quarter of Game 3, led 16-12 after 10 minutes on Sunday.
Gray — who overcame some serious injuries that threatened to sidetrack her career in the past — was WNBA Finals MVP, to no one’s surprise after averaging 18.3 points and 6 assists in the series.
“My teammates are awesome,” Gray said as she broke into tears. “I worked so hard for this.”
She wasn’t a WNBA All-Star this season, nor was she a first-team all-league pick, and voiced her displeasure about that.
In the end, she also got the last word.
“They can keep that All-Star and first team,” Gray said. “I got the ring.”
As expected, it was a physical game appropriately played on an NFL Sunday. The Sun got a scare when Bonner took an inadvertent elbow to the gut from Gray late in the first quarter and and was on the floor for a few minutes before being helped to the bench. She came back into the game later in the half, apparently suffering no ill effects. Natisha Hiedeman and Plum got into a short pushing match in the second quarter, eliciting technical fouls on both players. That was all before Plum’s flagrant in the fourth.
Before the game, both coaches reflected on the makeup of organizations in the Final. The Aces are led by Hammon and two Black women executives in general manager Nikki Williams and Nikki Fargas, president of business operations. The Sun are owned by the Mohegan Tribe, have a woman president in Jen Rizzotti and are coached by Curt Miller, a gay man.
“Women’s basketball is such a story in terms of diversity and inclusion. I mean, our our league defines it and I’m so proud to be a part of it, Miller said, adding that he hopes to be an inspiration to any gay child “wondering if they can chase a career in sports.”
Hammon said she believes the diversity in her team’s front office has made it stronger
“You can make a lot better picture with a box full of crayons than just a pencil,” she said.
The start of the celebration was shown on the video screens at the Raiders’ stadium during the NFL game against Arizona on Sunday, with fans breaking into loud cheers. They can cheer more in a few days: a parade on the Las Vegas Strip is planned for Thursday evening.
“What a team, what talent, what a victory! You have made Las Vegas so proud!” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a statement. “Thank you for your effort, discipline & focus. We can’t wait for the celebrations & a great parade!”
The Aces are the fourth WNBA team to win a title with both a league MVP and coach of the year ... The Sun have been among the last four WNBA teams standing for each of the last four seasons, making it back to the Finals for the first time since 2019.
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