LAS VEGAS — The top two teams in the league with the two most explosive offenses met Tuesday night for the Commissioner’s Cup. So, of course, the game was scoreless for the first 3 minutes, 31 seconds.
And of course, it took the league’s top two players to get things going.
A’ja Wilson’s two free throws at the 6:29 mark gave the Las Vegas Aces a 2-0 lead.
New York’s Breanna Stewart answered with a 3-pointer to put the Liberty ahead 3-2.
After all, just eight hours before tipoff, Stewart was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after leading the Liberty to a 2-0 record by averaging 31.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game; Wilson, meanwhile, was named the Western Conference Player of the Week after leading the Aces to a 3-0 record during which she averaged 29.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg and 1.7 apg.
Then they vied for the half-million-dollar prize pool and the Commissioner’s Cup just one month after they were the captains in the All-Star Game.
And while Stewart may have gotten the last laugh Tuesday when the Liberty defeated the Aces, 82-63, it’s the fans, the league, and women’s basketball as a whole who are the big winners, as they continue to witness one of the greatest rivalries in all of professional sports.
“I think it’s important for our league,” Aces veteran guard Chelsea Gray said. “A lot of people tune in for certain matchups, right? When you go down the history of sports, they want to tune in for certain matchups. I mean, you talk about Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. You talk about all these different matchups that people want to watch. And you think about that with A’ja and Stewie and the dynamic play that they’re able to do on both ends of the floor.”
Said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert: “Yeah, it’s really important as we’re trying to build household names and rivalries and to have this rivalry budding between these two great players. But they’re still young, and they’re really playing at the top of the game.”
Ironically, neither played major roles for their teams in the Commissioner’s Cup title game, as Stewart finished with 13 points on 4 of 16 shooting and Wilson had nine points on 2 of 10 shooting.
Nevertheless, this one-on-one rivalry is special, something the WNBA hasn’t seen in quite some time. And as it organically cultivates, the league will certainly benefit while building its popularity and fanbase even further.
This is just the beginning.
Wilson leads the head-to-head regular-season battle (8-5) while Stewart holds a 4-3 edge in the playoffs, and now, a 1-0 edge in Commissioner’s Cup meetings.
But when you take a deep dive into their career statistics, the eerily similar numbers define how special this budding rivalry has become.
Stewart is averaging 1.3 points per game more than Wilson, but in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, only decimal points separate the two, per Stathead.
“It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “They’re different, but they’re the same. So competitive. They’ve achieved so much in their young careers already, and they’re gonna continue to get better and better. Obviously, they’re in the same position, so they’re pushing each other and they’re making each other great.”
And it’s been that way, probably since 2020, when the teams met in the WNBA Finals in Bradenton, Florida during the truncated season due to COVID. The Aces won the two regular-season meetings, and Wilson took home league MVP honors. But Stewart led the Seattle Storm to a finals sweep and took home the MVP trophy.
Since 2018, Stewart and Wilson have won three of the five regular-season MVP awards. In that same span, Stewart has won two finals MVP trophies.
And with Stewart’s offseason move from Seattle to New York, the rivalry has intensified with both the Liberty and Aces expected to meet in this year’s WNBA Finals.
“I think that just the way that our careers are gonna end up going, we’re gonna end up facing against each other a lot throughout this and continue to make sure that every game is competitive,” Stewart said. “Every game we’re trying to push the needle, we’re trying to continue to make this league better, continue to make this game better – and enjoy that.
“This is why we play, is to play against the best, to be in the big moment. And I think that we’re continuing to just make sure that we do everything we can to leave it on the court.”
Through three meetings this season, Stewart is up 2-1 on Wilson, including the Commish Cup.
The teams meet twice more this season, including Thursday in Las Vegas, as the league heads into the final stretch of the regular season.
And though both players will undoubtedly be much more focused on trying to lead their teams to a critical win, it’ll be another chapter in what could one day become a “30-for-30” documentary on perhaps the greatest rivalry in WNBA history.
“It’s something that people can look forward to,” Wilson said. “They can get involved in (it) on both sides. And we have fun while doing it. I think that’s the biggest thing, is if you follow Stewie and I just through college, USA (Basketball), you’ve watched our games grow, you watched us grow. And when we’re growing, that means women’s basketball is growing.
“And for us to be at the top of that list and continue to show out and be elite in everything that we do and be great competitors, I believe that’s what our league needs. That’s what women’s basketball needs.”