UNCASVILLE, Connecticut – Almost a year ago, Las Vegas Aces He suffered an end-of-season loss that burned inside them throughout the winter months all the way up to this season. But that feeling faded on Sunday, as the Aces beat the Connecticut Sun 78-71 in Game 4 and won the WNBA Finals 3-1, giving the city of Las Vegas its first major professional sports tournament.
“We didn’t like that feeling last year,” said the aces guard. Chelsea Gray, who received the Finals MVP Award. “It was a tough moment, but it built the character. It was setting something up for the next year.”
It’s also a first for the Aces franchise, which began as the Utah Starzz in 1997, when the WNBA debuted as a league. The team moved to San Antonio in 2003 and appeared in the WNBA Finals in 2008, swept the team. Becky Hammon was a San Antonio player at the time; She is a head coach for Las Vegas now. Like the Aces, the franchise appeared in the 2020 WNBA Finals and was swept up again. But under Hammon, the World Cup has changed this time around.
Hammon, 45, is the first person in NBA history to win a title in her first season as a head coach. Van Chancellor won the inaugural WNBA Championship in 1997, when all coaches were in their first seasons with their teams, but he had been a college and high school coach for more than 30 years before that.
Five of the NBA’s junior coaches in the past 60 years have won a league title. The most recent was Nick Norse with Toronto in 2019, although he was also a head coach for several years prior to that in other levels of basketball.
Hammon was Greg Popovich’s assistant with the San Antonio Spurs for eight seasons before ace owner Mark Davis hired her last December to take over the WNBA team. She finished the season with Tottenham in April, then immediately joined the Aces, who played their pre-season match 1 May and the opening match on 6 May.
Aces tied the league’s best-record in the regular season at 26-10 and secured the top seed in the playoffs. They also won the Commissioner’s Cup of the season, and Aja Wilson He was Player of the Year and Best Defensive Player in the First Team, along with Aces’ goalkeeper Kelsey Bloom. Hamon was coach of the year and aces goalkeeper Jacky Young He was the best player of the year.
All the trophies would have felt a little empty for this team, though, without a championship. Led by Gray with 20 points and six assists, reserve Regona Williams With 17 points and Wilson with 11 points and 14 rebounds, the ace ended the series in front of a raucous crowd cheering on the sun at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas She had 11 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds for the second time in a row for a Triple Threat in the WNBA Finals, but that wasn’t enough because Sun lost in the Finals for the fourth time in franchise history.
The Aces franchise moved to Las Vegas in 2018, the same year Wilson was the first pick from South Carolina. The team was already the first pick of 2017 with Bloom, the NCAA women’s basketball scoring leader, out of Washington. The Aces added another No. 1 pick for Young, from Notre Dame, in 2019.
The Aces reached the WNBA Finals in 2020, when the season was played out in a COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida. Seattle swept Las Vegas after that. Bloom missed this season with a hock injury, but returned in 2021, when the Aces joined free agent point guard Gray. Between five on five (Wilson, Gray) and three on three (Bloom, Young), the Aces won four gold medals at last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
But the decisive loss in their fifth semi-final game at home to Phoenix last October – which came on Gray’s 29th birthday – was a crushing one for the team. Wilson said it was probably the most painful loss of her career. Gray said she kept playing over and over in her mind late in the 3-point defeat.
Coach Bill Laember retired, quarterback Liz Campage left as a free agent in Los Angeles and Hammon entered, as did another former WNBA player, Natalie Williams, as general manager. Without Cambage, who averaged 14.2 PPG and 8.2 RPG, Hammon opened up the Aces’ offensive approach, leading them to take more three-pointers. The Aces have gone from 162 out of 432 behind the arc last season to 343 out of 951 this season.
This included Wilson, who made only three pointers in her first four seasons in the league, but made 31 in the regular season. Wilson has now earned a WNBA title, two MVP awards and an Olympic gold medal at age 26, which she handed out in August.
“Actually, she’s only now entering her prime years,” Hamon said. “Think of the learning curve, until just this year. I’ve learned some completely new things, defensive and offensive. To excel like that, I’m excited for the coming years because of the foundation you’ve laid. Her game continues to keep expanding. I really don’t know how far she can go. It’s good, but it’s already there… I wouldn’t put a lid on it.”
Laimbeer was present at Sunday’s game as was Davis, who bought Aces from MGM Resorts International in January 2021. Davis, who also owns the Las Vegas Raiders, wanted to connect the Aces with their entire history in San Antonio and Utah, so he brought alumni from those teams to visit Las Vegas . One of them was Hamon, who wore the No. 25 with San Antonio and retired by aces.
Much has been said about Davis’ decision to pay Hammon a $1 million salary to the coach, but the owner was smiling outside the Aces locker room on Sunday.
“Let’s see what those episodes will look like,” said Davis, who mentioned that his last tournament was when the Raiders won the Super Bowl in January 1984.
The Aces win also makes an even bigger year in women’s basketball for South Carolina fans, who still cheer for Gamecocks legend Wilson. South Carolina beat Connecticut in April for the NCAA women’s title behind Alia Boston, who is expected to be the first player in the WNBA World Championships in 2023.
Boston suffered a heartbreaking end to its 2021 NCAA Championship with a semi-final loss to Stanford, but then returned to win a title the following year. It’s a similar story in the WNBA for Wilson, who is expected to soon join the US team in Australia for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
“I felt like Vegas set the standard in the league for how to franchise,” Wilson said. “When you have an owner like Mark who’s been called so often… the sky’s the limit for that privilege.”
And with all their main players, including Derica HampiReturning for next season, the Aces have a chance to be the first WNBA team to repeat the champion since the Los Angeles Sparks did so in 2001-02.
It’s a commitment to wanting to keep a group together,” said Gray, who also won a title with Los Angeles in 2016. “Thinking about teams in the past that kept a core together, like Minnesota, Phoenix or Seattle, it’s a commitment to excellence and a desire to leave a legacy.
“I think especially with a head coach in the first year, our bond is getting tighter and stronger. For the organization to understand what it takes to not just do it for one year, but to try to do it for several years, this is the time for you” talking about more excellence legendary. Hopefully that’s what we can be.”