NEW YORK (AP) — A’ja Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces secured their place as one of the greatest teams in WNBA history.
The Aces became the first team to repeat as champions in 21 years, getting 24 points and 16 rebounds from Wilson and a defensive stop in the closing seconds to beat the New York Liberty 70-69 in Game 4 of the Finals on Wednesday night.
“It’s not easy, as you know. This is what it’s all about,” Wilson said. “Not a lot of people get to do it. To be short-handed and win is amazing. It makes the win that much better. It’s hard to get back to the Finals to win again.”
The Aces joined the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) and the Houston Comets (1997-2000) as the only teams in league history to win consecutive titles.
Las Vegas did it without starters Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, who were both sidelined with foot injuries suffered in Game 3. Gray, the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP, was constantly in the ear of her teammates during timeouts and shouting encouragement from the sideline. Las Vegas was also still missing veteran Candace Parker, who had foot surgery in late July.
“We’ve been facing adversity all season, playing without different players. … We have some professional fighters,” said Alysha Clark, who was pressed into the starting lineup Wednesday. “To weather the storm of everything we went through, to show up every single day. To be in this moment right now and do it together, it speaks volumes about us, our chemistry.”
Coach Becky Hammon said this was the closest team she has ever been around. The entire team attended the postgame news conference and cheered every answer, especially those by Wilson, the Finals MVP, who finished third in the regular-season MVP balloting.
With the game tied at 64, Las Vegas scored six straight points, including the first four by Jackie Young, to go ahead 70-64 with 1:26 left.
Courtney Vandersloot hit a 3-pointer on New York’s next possession, then stole the ball from Kelsey Plum, which led to Sabrina Ionescu’s foul-line jumper to get the Liberty within one with 41.7 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, Las Vegas worked the shot clock down before Hammon called timeout with 3 seconds left on the shot clock. The Aces got the ball to Wilson on a lob, but Breanna Stewart blocked the shot, giving New York one last chance.
After a timeout with 8.8 seconds left, the Liberty got the ball to Stewart, who was double-teamed. The ball swung over to Vandersloot in the corner, but her shot missed badly, setting off a wild celebration by the Aces at midcourt.
“It’s a play we’ve ran before, get the ball to Stewie’s hand,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We got it where we wanted to, but didn’t make it.”
Vandersloot finished with 19 points and Betnijah Laney added 15 for New York.
Hammon said before the game she would be “throwing the kitchen sink at (the Liberty), see what sticks, see what works.”
The Aces rotated defenses, which stymied New York after the Liberty scored 23 points in the first quarter.
“I think they were throwing whatever defense they had at us and make sure it’s ugly,” Stewart said. “Sometimes we lost our flow and ball movement.”
Hammon started WNBA sixth woman of the year Clark and Cayla George in place of Gray and Stokes. Clark did a stellar job on her former Seattle Storm teammate Stewart, holding her to 10 points on 3-of-17 shooting. George had 11 points.
“Just knowing what she likes to do. And just locking in and making sure that I don’t give that to her,” Clark said of guarding Stewart. “I’m so proud of this team.”
This was the first close game of the season between these teams. The four regular-season matchups were all blowouts with the closest contest being a nine-point win by New York on Aug. 28. The first three games of the WNBA Finals were also routs, with New York winning Game 3 87-73 to stave off elimination.
Game 4 was so tense that Ionescu was seen vomiting into a trash can during a timeout midway through the fourth quarter, shortly after she hit a 3-pointer to get the Liberty within 60-58. Ionescu stayed in the game after the timeout.
New York’s record fell to 2-10 all-time in the WNBA Finals. Teams that fall behind 0-2 in the best-of-five series Finals have lost all nine of those series.
Once again, New York drew dozens of celebrities to the game, including basketball royalty Sue Bird and Dawn Staley — the South Carolina coach who loudly cheered on her former star player, Wilson. The two embraced in a long hug after the game. Also in attendance were Liberty Ring of Honor members Vickie Johnson and Sue Wicks, and actors Jennifer Connelly, Issa Rae and Jason Sudeikis.
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