Saturday, July 20, 2024

WNBA Finals: A’ja Wilson’s excellence and Aces’ commitment to each other helps ‘special group’ make history

Minutes into the Las Vegas Aces’ championship press conference, Kelsey Plum burst into the room with a speaker on her shoulder blaring Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck,” and multiple teammates in tow. The champagne was already flowing, and A’ja Wilson was eager to join the party. 

But ever the consummate leader and professional, Wilson first regained control of the situation and told her teammates to calm down so she could answer a question. 

“This is what it’s all about,” Wilson said. “To have your name sketched in history right now with other teams. We never gave up. This is a moment we need to celebrate. This is a moment that not a lot of people get. For us to do it and be shorthanded, it’s truly amazing. It just makes the win that much better. At the end of the day, it’s huge. Like [Alysha Clark] said, it’s hard to get back to the Finals, but to win it again, it’s ten times harder. 

“I’m grateful. I’ll go to war with these wounded warriors every day. Crutches, boot and scooter, I don’t care, I’m going to war with them. Alright, now if y’all gonna be in here, y’all gotta shut up.”

On or off the court, Wilson can’t turn it off until the job is done. That’s why she’s a two-time MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the newly crowned Finals MVP. And that’s why the Aces are the first team to win back-to-back titles in over two decades. 

The Aces entered Game 4 without former MVP Candace Parker (out for the season with a broken foot suffered in July), All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray (foot injury in Game 3) and starting center Kiah Stokes (foot injury in Game 3). No one expected them to win from the start, and certainly not once they were down by 12 points in the third quarter on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the league. 

No one would have blamed them if they let the game slip away at that point, or started to shake their heads at the tough hand they’d been dealt. But that was when the hard work and commitment to each other and the process that they had put in all summer long truly paid off. 

To no surprise, Wilson led the way. She scored nine points in a row for the Aces over a four-minute span, as they ripped off an 18-5 run to take the lead heading into the fourth quarter. Wilson scored 15 of her game-high 24 points in the second half on 7-of-12 shooting from the field. 

To be able to be here on the biggest stage and show up the way she showed up just speaks to who she is as a player, what she means to this team, what she means for this franchise,” Clark said. “[After Wilson didn’t win regular season MVP], she was vulnerable with us, she talked with us, she cried with us. And then was like listen, ‘I’m putting my armor back on and we’re going to work.’ When you have your best player, your franchise player who can do that, who can show up and be like that, it makes everybody want to rally around her even more.”

In the final frame, the Aces were the ones trying to pull away, only to see the Liberty claw their way back multiple times. A seven-point Aces lead was erased, then they built the advantage back up to six on a Wilson jumper with 1:27 to play. Again, the Liberty fought back, cutting the deficit to one in the closing seconds. With the trophy within their grasp, the Aces needed one more stop. 

It was time for Wilson’s teammates to step up, and they delivered. The Liberty inbounded the ball to Breanna Stewart, who was bumped and jostled by Clark in the mid-post, and unable to find any space. Before she could think about getting a shot off, Jackie Young arrived with a perfectly timed double team to force Stewart to pass the ball. 

Stewart obliged and hit Betnijah Laney on the wing, but Kelsey Plum sprang towards her with high hands, which not only prevented Laney from shooting, but made her pass to Courtney Vandersloot in the corner more difficult. Young then sprinted back out to the corner, forcing Vandersloot into a rushed shot that she airballed at the buzzer. 

A title secured in fitting fashion with all-out effort and trust in one another on the defensive end. 

“They’re a special group,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “I don’t know what else you could throw at them. All we did is buckle down and keep playing. That was our mantra: Keep playing. Next play, keep playing. Offensively, keep playing. Defensively, keep playing. And this is a testament that your character will be your culture. 

“We had plenty of times to fall apart. But because of their character and the culture we built, you can’t crack this group. You just can’t.”

As the press conference came to a close, even Wilson couldn’t contain her excitement. All of the work was done. It was time to party. 

“Last year I said four shots,” Wilson said. “This year we’re going eight.” 

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