With tension at an all-time high for the first game of the WNBA playoffs, the Las Vegas Aces were able to pull away late to upend the Phoenix Mercury.
The No. 1 seed Las Vegas beat No. 8 Phoenix, 79-63, Wednesday, Aug. 17 from the Michelob Ultra Arena in game one of the first round of the WNBA Playoffs.
The series also marks a rematch from last year’s semifinal series in which the Mercury took in five games.
“I didn’t forget,” guard Chelsea Gray said. “I didn’t forget that from last year. It was important – away teams always want to come in and try to steal game one so we felt that energy.”
Through four games this season, the Aces have claimed them all by an average of 16.5 points per game.
Game two takes place Saturday, Aug. 20 from the Michelob Ultra Arena with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m. With the new playoff format, a win by Las Vegas closes this best-of-three series while a win by Phoenix pushes it to a game three in Arizona.
“We just want to take care of business,” head coach Becky Hammon said. “That being said, I like on the road sometimes better than at home. Now I don’t want to go on the road but we definitely want to take care of business on Saturday.”
A dustup between Gray and Phoenix’s Megan Gustafson early in the fourth quarter injected the needed energy into the home team. Following a review by the officials, Gustafson was called for a flagrant-one foul.
“Don’t foul Chelsea Gray like that,” guard Kelsey Plum said. “I wouldn’t. She’s just a dawg and she just flipped a switch and kind of broke open the game.”
From there, Gray scored the next seven points for the Aces, giving Las Vegas a nine-point lead. She netted a midrange jumper a little less than two minutes later to push the home lead to 11 points.
“You watch Chelsea and you know she likes these moments,” Hammon said. “You feel very comfortable as a coach with the ball in her hands in big moments. Obviously, there’s a lot of emotion but she’s not somebody that you want to make mad, I don’t think. She’s been mad for the last month and a half, I think, she’s been ridiculous.”
Gray ended the night with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting with four assists and four rebounds.
Plum led all scorers with 22 points, 11 in the second half, on 6-of-13 from the field including two made three-pointers.
Guard Jackie Young added 16 points on the same shooting night as teammate Plum with two threes as well. Young’s first three of the night gave Las Vegas its first lead of the night with 47.6 seconds left in the first quarter.
“I think that’s why this team was built this way,” Plum said. “In the playoffs, you’ve got to have everyone firing from every spot. Sometimes people have nights where it’s not falling but as we’ve seen throughout the playoffs, just historically, everyone’s got to be able to step up in some type of moment [and] you don’t necessarily know when it is.”
That first quarter had a slow start for the Aces before rookie Iliana Rupert put her fingerprints on the game. Upon entering the contest, she knocked down a corner three-pointer and got the tap out for the second chance possession for Las Vegas.
“She always comes in and brings the energy,” Young said. “We can always count on her to knock down the three or just get an offensive rebound for us. She steps up for us every night.”
Until the 3:36-mark of the third quarter, her three points were the only from the Aces bench. Rupert ended the night with six of the eight bench points for Las Vegas.
Forward A’ja Wilson struggled from the floor, missing six of her seven first quarter attempts. In fact, she’d miss nine of her first 10 shots from the field.
“Offensively, I thought we got some decent shots that we missed,” Hammon said. “But that’s why the defense always has to be there.”
With 7:15 left in regulation, she connected on her second made field goal and upon doing so took a deep breath before gazing up at the lights in the Michelob Ultra Arena rafters.
Wilson, along with forward Kiah Stokes, did lead a defensive charge that saw both players combine for 16 points, 25 rebounds and six blocks.
“Just rim protection toward the end [of the game],” Hammon said. “They come up with some big blocks, they each have three apiece. I wish they kept this stat, I’m not sure if they do, just shots altered at the rim.”
Stokes started her third straight game in the absence of former two-time Sixth Woman of the Year, Dearica Hamby, who is set to miss 2-4 weeks with a right knee bone contusion.