Las Vegas Aces Win Back-to-Back WNBA Championships
The Aces fend off the New York Liberty, completing the first WNBA repeat in 21 years.
Things did not look good for the Las Vegas Aces, who collected their first franchise title last year, as they entered the fourth game of the 2023 Women’s National Basketball Association Finals. The New York Liberty handed the Aces their first loss in the playoffs last Tuesday, 87–73, extending the final series and keeping hopes alive in New York City. Aces’ starting point guard Chelsea Gray, named the Finals Most Valuable Player last season, left game three with an apparent foot injury; and Kiah Stokes, the Aces’ starting center, showed up to the team’s Tuesday practice in crutches according to a CBS Sports report.
The Liberty started game four strong and marched into the second half with a nine-point lead. The crowd in BarclaysBarclay Center, the Liberty’s home court, was having a blast when Brenna Stewart–the Most Valuable Player of the WNBA this season–finished a layup and gave the Liberty a 12-point lead. However, the Aces came alive and responded with a huge 21–7 run to end the third quarter, leading 53–51. The Las Vegas squad was ready to celebrate when superstar power forward A’ja Wilson sank a turn-around fadeaway jumper and created a six-point buffer for the Aces with 90 seconds on the clock.
Courtney Vandersloot, a veteran guard on the Liberty, did not back off as she fired from downtown, made the shot, and forced a turnover on the Aces’ guard Kelsey Plum. Shooting guard Sabrina Ionescu lit the BarclaysBarclay Center crowd up once again by making a mid-range jumper to close the gap to just one. A joint defensive effort from Ionescu and Stewart then successfully blocked Wilson’s layup attempt defensively. Ionescu secured the rebound, pushed to the frontcourt, and used the last Liberty timeout with 8.8 seconds left in the game. Ionescu in-bounded the ball. Stewart tried to work her way to the paint and drew the help-defense from the far side. The Liberty managed to find Vandersloot, who put up a shot from the left corner but did not hit the target.
The Aces survived the momentum to win the 2023 WNBA championship, 70–69, and made history. They are the first reigning champion to complete a repeat since 2002, when the Los Angeles Sparks swept the Liberty thanks to hall-of-famer Lisa Leslie’s stellar performances. This is also the first time any WNBA teams won consecutive titles since the league changed its finals into a best-of-five format. The Aces achieved something no one has ever done with two starters injured in the final game, and a future hall-of-famer–Candace Parker–sitting on the sideline.
Wilson, without surprise, won her first Finals MVP award after scoring 24 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in the championship-clinching game. She dominated the court on both offense and defense, averaging 23.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per postseason game. Wilson stepped up and continued to make tough baskets count whenever the Aces needed a basket. Despite being heavily guarded, the young WNBA superstar demonstrated great shooting efficiency in the playoffs. She is the only WNBA player to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds while maintaining a shooting percentage higher than 55%. She also went on a roll in the earlier rounds against the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings and became the first WNBA player to score more than 30 points in three consecutive playoff games. Wilson is only 27 years old, but she has already been in the WNBA Greatest-Player-of-All-Time discussion for her impressive accomplishments.
“Aces versus Liberty” was the anticipated finals matchup of WNBA fans. There seems to be a rivalry in the making as things got heated both on and off the basketball court. First, there was the regular season MVP debate. It was a close race, but Stewart ended up receiving the ultimate season honor while Wilson was only voted third. Becky Hammon, the head coach of the Aces, lambasted the MVP vote in a press conference on September 26th. “People did not do their homework,” Hammon argued. The smoke has not gone away after the finals. Plum, after winning the championship, commented that the Liberty “are not a team” and “don’t care about each other.” Although Plum apologized and claimed that her words were misconstrued and brought out of context, the message of her words remains hurtful to the young Liberty team. “Honestly, to me, it felt kind of classless,” Jonquel Jones, the Liberty center and former MVP, responded. The feud between players from the two teams continues on “X” (formerly known as “Twitter”) as Plum’s teammates joined the online chirping.
Regardless, this is another successful season for not only the Aces but also the WNBA as a whole. According to ESPN, the viewership of the WNBA finals game four doubled from the finals game four in the previous year. The finals series attracted an average of 728 thousand viewers online–a 36% increase from last year’s record, making it the most-watched WNBA finals in 20 years. The WNBA audience has certainly grown over recent years, and the games and competitive nature of the players are constantly living up to the fans’ expectations.