Aces win back to back WNBA titles

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Playing without starters Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, the Las Vegas Aces defeated the New York Liberty to win the WNBA title.

Some of the greatest heavyweight bouts have been fought in Las Vegas and New York City.

It seemed only fitting that’s exactly what we saw from Brooklyn on Wednesday night, with the short-handed Las Vegas Aces defeating the New York Liberty 70-69 in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in 21 years.

And what a slugfest it was.

The Liberty led by as many as 12.

The Aces fought back to take a seven-point lead.

New York threw haymakers down the stretch to pull within one.

But nobody was going to deny A’ja Wilson her second straight title, as Courtney Vandersloot’s last-second 3-point attempt was off the mark, and for the second consecutive season the Aces raced around on their opponent’s court in jubilation.

“We cried together, prayed together, now we poppin’ champagne together,” said Wilson, who finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds – her sixth double-double of the postseason.

After finishing third in the regular-season MVP voting, Wilson earned her first WNBA Finals MVP trophy.

Jackie Young finished with 16 points and seven assists, sparsely used reserve Cayla George started and finished with 11 points, and Alysha Clark had 10.

The Aces join the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) and the Houston Comets (1997-2000) as the only teams in league history to win consecutive titles.

Vandersloot finished with 19 points and Betnijah Laney added 15 for New York.

Las Vegas defied the odds, literally as 6-point underdogs, as it was without starters Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, who were both sidelined with foot injuries suffered in Game 3. The Aces were also without veteran Candace Parker, who had foot surgery in late July.

But like the heavyweight champions who used to fight 15 rounds before boxing matches were reduced to 12-round bouts, the battered Aces fought through adversity when it appeared the Liberty was on pace to force a fifth and decisive game.

The Aces used a 9-0 run to close the third quarter, as Wilson and Alysha Clark scored the team’s last 15 points of the stanza to give Las Vegas a 53-51 lead heading into the fourth.

It was a lead they would never relinquish, as the Liberty managed to tie the game three times in the fourth quarter, but could never take the lead.

“It’s who we are. we’re professional athletes,” Wilson said. “People counted us out as back-to-back champions. That shit fueled us.”

The Liberty wasted no time in coming out swinging as they used a 15-4 run to close the first quarter after falling behind by four early on, and took a 23-13 lead after one quarter.

New York shot 7 of 20 from the floor in the opening period, a paltry 35%, but also hit 4 of 8 (50%) from 3-point range. Vandersloot got nine of her points in the opening quarter.

The Liberty continued their offensive flow into the second quarter, and after the Aces pulled within one at 31-30, New York closed on an 8-0 run to take a 39-30 lead into the locker room at halftime.

But as they’ve done all season, they dominated the third quarter using runs of 12-7 and 11-5 to seize control of the game.

“Credit to Vegas, they found a way,” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “We fought, but it wasn’t our best game today. … We just didn’t have it tonight.”

And in a heavyweight fight, you have to throw your best blows.

“We’ve been facing adversity all season, playing without different players. … We have some professional fighters,” said an emotional Alysha Clark, the WNBA’s Sixth Player of the Year who was pressed into the starting lineup Wednesday. “To weather the storm of everything we went through, to show up every single day. To be in this moment right now and do it together, it speaks volumes about us, our chemistry.”

Added Kelsey Plum: “This group has been through so much. But it’s here,” as she gave her heart – fittingly after the heavyweight battle – a fist pound.