After the Las Vegas Aces took a 2-0 lead in the WNBA Finals last week, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, himself the winner of five NBA rings, went into the Aces’ locker room and shared a bit of wisdom: The sweetest wins are the ones on the road, he said.
Turns out, it’s even sweeter when that road win gives your franchise its first-ever championship.
Chelsea Gray scored 20 points, Riquana “Bay Bay” Williams performed some late game heroics off the bench and the Las Vegas Aces won Game 4 of the WNBA Finals 78-71, winning the series 3-1 and capturing the 2022 title.
Gray, an All-Star game snub earlier this season, was named the Finals MVP.
“They can keep the All-Star jersey,” Gray said on court afterward, “I got the ring!”
A’ja Wilson, the 2022 MVP, finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds. Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas recorded her second consecutive triple-double (11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds) but it wasn’t enough for the Sun.
Connecticut coach Curt Miller said of Las Vegas “you’re constantly being pressured by their offensive weapons” and five Aces players scoring in double figures proved that.
It’s the first title for the Davis family since 1984, when the then-Los Angeles Raiders won the Super Bowl.
Mark Davis, son of the famed Al Davis, purchased the Aces in 2021 and has been praised for his commitment to growing women’s sports. He hired longtime NBA assistant — on Popovich’s staff — and former WNBA great Becky Hammon before the 2022 season, signing her to a $1 million contract. Suffice it to say, the investment paid off.
It didn’t come without some drama though.
WNBA PLAYOFFS:Results from every game of the 2022 postseason
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With 3:01 to go, in a back-and-forth game that had mostly been controlled by Las Vegas, Connecticut reeled off six consecutive points to tie it, 67-67. After the Sun forced a shot-clock violation out of a timeout, Courtney Williams hit a jumper for a 69-67 lead. But then it was time for the Vegas version of Williams to shine, as she hit 3s on back-to-back possessions for a 73-71 Vegas lead with 1:46 to go.
Connecticut missed two looks to tie it, Vegas called a timeout and with the shot clock winding down, Riquana Williams hit another huge shot. Her stepback gave the Aces a 75-71 lead with 53.2 seconds to play.
“You don’t get the name ‘Bay Buckets,’ for nothing,” Hammon said of Williams. “She knows she’s got the ultimate green light.”
Hammon had gone small for that stretch, explaining afterward that her logic was “if we could scrap at the (defensive) end, they would have a tough time guarding us at the other end.” She told her team, “I don’t know if we’ll stop them, but I don’t think they can stop us either.” Williams proved Hammon right, scoring eight points in just 68 seconds.
Connecticut turned it over on the next possession, and a pull-up from Kelsey Plum gave the Aces a 77-71 lead with 25.5 seconds to go. Jackie Young hit one of two free throws for the 78-71 edge and Connecticut ran out of time.
In a brutally physically game, it was a series of small mistakes that ultimately did in the Sun, adding up to Connecticut’s first elimination-game loss in the postseason (the Sun has previously been 4-0 in elimination games). It is the fourth consecutive season that Connecticut has lost in either the finals or semifinals.
Connecticut took a 39-37 lead with 6:17 to go in the third quarter but couldn’t ever get true separation as Las Vegas forced turnovers in all sorts of ways — a steal and (free throw) score by Plum, a foul drawn by Gray. In total the Aces forced the Sun into 16 turnovers, which Las Vegas turned into 18 points
In between, Sun star Jonquel Jones picked up her fourth foul and headed to the bench with 3:15 to go in the third quarter, halting Connecticut’s momentum. Jones, the 2021 MVP, had 11 points and seven rebounds and had just started to heat up when she picked up her fourth; she finished with just 13 points.
Impressive as Vegas was this season, it might just be the beginning. The Aces will return the core of their roster led by Wilson, who is quickly becoming the face of women’s basketball after an NCAA title, 2 MVP awards and, finally, a WNBA championship.
“The Aces aren’t done,” she vowed afterward, hinting at more titles to come.
Wilson, who skipped into the press conference with Gray, both of them giggling and holding Champagne — “I’m six bottles deep!” Wilson admitted — said there would be plenty of celebrating the next couple days before she and others head to Australia to join USA Basketball in the FIBA World Cup, which starts play Wednesday.
Her postgame promise for all the fans waiting to back home to celebrate the first-ever championship for a professional sports franchise based in Vegas had a decidedly Sin City-theme to it: “Get ready,” Wilson said, “we’re skiing across the Bellagio fountains!”