Aces hold all the cards in Finals

LAS VEGAS — Of all the grand stages that are in Las Vegas, Michelob Ultra Arena has become the hottest spot in town.

The WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces are turning people away at the turnstiles, consistently selling out their 10,000-seat arena at Mandalay Bay. They now find themselves just 40 minutes away from winning the franchise’s first title, following their 85-71 win over the Connecticut Sun, that gave them a commanding 2-0 lead in the WNBA Finals on Tuesday. If accomplished, it would be the first pro sports championship the city has celebrated since the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League (remember them?) won the second of two consecutive titles back in 2010.

The Aces have only been on the Las Vegas Strip since 2017, when MGM Resorts purchased the team from San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt and moved the franchise to the desert. But, the team’s WNBA roots go back to the beginning in 1997, when they were the Utah Starzz and lasted in Salt Lake City until 2002.

The franchise, however, has never had the success the Aces are currently enjoying. Ironically, they had current Aces head coach Becky Hammon as a player back when they were the Silver Stars. Hammon is proving to be a better coach than she was a player and she was a pretty damn good player. She’s earning every cent of the seven-figure contract owner Mark Davis bestowed upon her to leave the Spurs and the NBA to return to the WNBA.

At some point, Hammon is going to go back to the NBA and be the first female head coach in league history. We saw her talents on display a few years ago when she guided the Spurs to the NBA Summer League title at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV. What she’s doing with the Aces now, is only cementing her basketball future. She is an excellent teacher, a superb tactician, and is utilizing her immensely talented group, led by league MVP A’Ja Wilson, to produce impressive results.

And the town has noticed.

It’s funny how winning attracts people to drive down to the Strip, fight the traffic, pay $22 to park, and walk through a casino to get to the arena. Ironically, the Aces’ WNBA Finals opponent, the Sun, is the only other team that’s home arena is also located on a casino property. Game 3 of the best of five series, will be played at Mohegan Sun on Thursday.

But to those who’ve been on board with the Aces from the outset, they know and appreciate what a special group of women this is, and whatever inconveniences may exist, they don’t seem to care. The experience and joy that comes from attending games outweighs the hassles. Needless to say, there’s a true love affair blossoming between this team and its fans.

It’s not just Wilson. It’s not just Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. It’s an unselfish group, one that plays a ton of minutes and has a “Hoosiers” feel to it. The fact that the bench is an extension of the starting five featuring forward Dearica Hamby and guard Riquna Williams, is an added bonus.

This is “IRONWOMAN” basketball at its finest, and with the finish line within sight, you’re not going to hear anyone on the Aces say they’re tired. Unless of course, the league decides to have the Aces take a train or a bus to Connecticut to save on costs, which wouldn’t be all that surprising considering what has happened this season.

The franchise has its roots firmly planted in Southern Nevada. Davis, who is perhaps better known for being the owner of the Las Vegas Raiders, is building a 50,000 square-foot facility for the Aces that will adjoin the two teams’ practice facility and headquarters. He has a strong front office in place, and the team’s community outreach grows with each passing year.

The WNBA has come a long way over the years, but it’s still got a long way to go. Its players are underpaid and under-marketed. Teams can’t charter to travel during the regular season, which is simply embarrassing. And while the league’s TV ratings are at an all-time high, in-house attendance continues to lag. Only the Seattle Storm averaged five figures for home attendance, with the Storm getting 10,631 people per game at Climate Pledge Arena.

The Aces were seventh in home attendance this season, averaging 5,607. That’s amazing when you consider they won the regular season title with a 26-10 record. They were great from start to finish, but only now, are people getting on board and following them.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert promises to do more to boost player salaries and she better. For many, Russia is no longer an option after what happened to Brittney Griner in February. What American player in their right mind would go back there to play now? But, they have little choice but to go overseas to supplement their meager WNBA wages.

There’s got to be more done to market these players, both in the cities they play, and league-wide. Wilson is a great talent, she is well spoken, has a tremendous personality, and there are plenty of other players like her across the league. Let’s get to know these women beyond the court, and maybe we’ll see attendance pick up everywhere.

There’s a lot of work for the WNBA to do. As for the Aces, they too have to finish the task at hand. You don’t get the championship trophy by only winning two games. It takes three, and the Sun will throw the kitchen sink at Vegas come Thursday.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for Connecticut and they know it. In Game 1, the Sun thought they had Plum under their thumb after holding her to just six points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. But Plum, a four-year veteran, wasn’t going in the tank. She bounced back with a 20-point performance, supporting Wilson’s 26-point game-high outing in Game 2. The trio of Wilson, Plum, and Gray (21) nearly outscored the Sun by themselves in the Game 2 blowout.

I’m not sure what Connecticut coach Curt Miller can do at this point. In an attempt to throw the Aces off their game, the Sun played with an aggressive and physical style. However, the Aces have handled it beautifully and not missed a beat. Their talent level is simply higher than the Suns. They are extremely motivated, and it feels like Hammon is always two moves ahead of her former Colorado State coach.

Hammon has her team rolling into the history books, and while she may be the highest paid coach in the WNBA, she’s also likely incredibly underpaid. Perhaps she should get Jon Gruden money — $10 million a year.

Nah, maybe not. That didn’t work out too well for Davis. But he certainly has gotten this hire right.

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