CONNECTICUT – How poetic, on a team lauded for the excellence of its starting lineup and chided for its meager bench, that a reserve pushed the Las Vegas Aces over the finish line and into the land of WNBA Finals champions.
Riquna Williams simply couldn’t miss.
Down two with just over two minutes remaining in Game 4 and the Connecticut Sun on a snarling 8-0 run, Williams erupted, hitting the most significant shots of her basketball career.
She caught a risky pass from Kelsey Plum, punctuating a chaotic possession full of swarming Sun defenders with a deadeye three.
Connecticut quickly regained the lead on a pair of Brionna Jones free throws with 1:50 remaining. Williams got back to work. This time, the 32-year-old guard set a screen for Plum and turned her head, darting into open space behind the three-point line. Plum found her and Williams nailed another triple. Aces by two.
The Sun had three shots to tie or take the lead on the ensuing possession, but failed to capitalize. After a Las Vegas timeout, Williams tied a bow on her flurry and sent Connecticut to the travel agency. The 2012 second-round draft pick capped her personal 8-0 run with a lethal stepback jumper over the outstretched fingertips of Natisha Hiedeman, seamlessly transitioning into an elated celebration, gleefully gliding across the court.
How fitting, though, that it was Vegas’s rock, Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time league MVP—A’ja Wilson—who grabbed the final rebound and cradled the basketball as time expired on a triumphant and historic 78-71 victory. It was Wilson who carried the Aces on her back from the moment she was drafted first overall in 2018, and it was Wilson who euphorically slammed the ball onto hardwood in commemoration of the franchise’s first-ever WNBA Finals title.
Wilson was magnificent throughout the playoffs, averaging 20.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.4 steals + blocks, and 37.1 minutes, while shooting over 55 percent from the field. On Sunday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, she scored 11 points, snared 14 rebounds, and didn’t sit for a single minute. Defensively, she was the glue that held Las Vegas together.
Speaking of magnificent playoff performances, it was Aces point guard (er, GAWD) Chelsea Gray who led the league in dropped jaws en route to being named Finals MVP. Up until Williams’ fourth quarter explosion, it was Gray who provided instant offense and wickedly difficult shotmaking whenever the Aces were in dire need of a bucket. Gray’s 20-point (9-of-13 shooting), six-assist performance in Game 4 concluded a scorching postseason in which she averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 assists while posting a mind-boggling 61/54/83 shooting split.
Cliché as it sounds, Gray held Vegas together offensively as Wilson did defensively. The former Los Angeles Sparks floor general—who won a championship in her second professional season (2016)—spurred Williams’ clutch shooting Sunday, firing a no-look bullet on a frozen rope to her teammate in the corner for three.
Others stepped up. Plum, who struggled during earlier stages of the playoffs, found her groove against Connecticut and scored 15 points in the clincher.
Jackie Young was instrumental on defense all series long, guarding the taller DeWanna Bonner with aplomb. Young set playoff career-highs in the Aces Game 3 loss, scoring 22 points and nailing five threes. Though she struggled to maintain her shooting groove on Sunday, Young was nonetheless superb, dishing a team-high eight assists, grabbing five boards, and poaching two steals to go along with 13 points.
The Sun went down swinging. Alyssa Thomas notched the first- and second-ever WNBA Finals triple-doubles in the final two games of the season. 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones played her best basketball of the year in Game 3 and had stretches of enthralling dominance in Game 4.
Ultimately, Las Vegas was undeniable. From the moment head coach Becky Hammon was signed to a record-breaking seven-figure contract this spring, optimism abounded within the franchise. A 9-1 start led to a Commissioner’s Cup trophy, which led to a postseason in which the Aces rolled through Phoenix, Seattle, and Connecticut while dropping just two games.
But enough about the basketball. This was an Aces team largely defined by its ability to balance supreme levels of focus and determination with boundless joy and camaraderie. That joy would spill from locker room lounging to practices and into games, with Sydney Colson, Theresa Plaisance, Aisha Sheppard, Kierstan Bell and others often dancing over a clutch three or a breathtaking no-look dime. Whether it was Colson directing a comedy sketch or Dearica Hamby a TikTok dance, or general halfcourt shot hijinks, the Aces emanated fun, the type of team you would kill to be a part of.
Naturally, when the work was finished, the Aces celebrated in style.
One moment during the trophy presentation highlighted the closeness of this team, and the selflessness of its leader. A’ja Wilson had just as strong an argument to be named Finals MVP as Chelsea Gray. Both were deserving; this was as close as you could get to an awards-related toss-up. Yet, even before Gray’s name was announced, Wilson began dancing in the direction of her point guard, delightedly bouncing up and down with her hands on Gray’s shoulders as it became official. Tears streamed down Gray’s face during her interview, the culmination of endless hours improving her fitness and perfecting her shot. The Aces racked up numerous individual accolades over the course of the season, yet rendered them all insignificant with their glorious unity.
Said Wilson in her postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe, “When you have a point guard like Chelsea Gray, I ain’t even worried about a damn thing.”
Bill Laimbeer—who coached the Aces from 2018 through 2021 before selflessly stepping aside—was in attendance, signature grin in tow. Washington Mystics point guard, Natasha Cloud, flexed at Plum from her perch on the ESPN broadcasters booth. Hamby took selfies with her daughter, Amaya. Wilson adorned sunglasses over her eyes as goggles rested atop her head. All shared hugs, basking in moments of earned revelry mixed with relief.
Once Vegas’s hug quota was met, the team glided off the court, through the tunnels and into the visiting locker room. As the players exited, it was Wilson with her hands clasped around the championship trophy, arms raised above her head so all could clearly see the spoils of victory.
And then… madness.
Bottles of champagne popped, consumed and discarded only to restart the cycle over. Wilson—upon the locker room opening to media—taking a bottle and playfully spraying it towards the reporters, telling us to leave in jest. (Or maybe it wasn’t in jest. I’d support her stance either way.) Dancing. A whole lot of dancing, seemingly in the direction of a screen, presumably streaming live to the masses. Plum, roaming the depths of Mohegan Sun Arena with a large speaker hoisted over her shoulder, crashing Wilson and Gray’s media conference. More champagne. So much champagne.
Jubilant scenes that illustrate how thrilled these Aces are to share the court, and how thankful they are to form a bond that extended far beyond it.
Scenes that proved the 2022 Las Vegas Aces simply couldn’t miss.