The Las Vegas Aces needed to make a statement on Thursday night and they did just that.
After falling in their last two meetings with the New York Liberty, the Aces responded with an, 88-75, win at Michelob Ultra Arena amidst a playoff atmosphere.
While the Liberty and Aces have been the WNBA’s two best teams this season, Las Vegas didn’t put that on display the last two times it played New York.
After an Aces’ win earlier in the season, the two teams met again on Aug. 6, in a highly anticipated rematch. The result was a 38-point drubbing by the Liberty, handing Las Vegas its worst loss of the season.
The teams then circled back to meet just over a week later on August 15 in the Commissioner’s Cup Final in Las Vegas. Again, the Liberty had the upper hand, winning by nearly 20 points to hand the Aces their first home loss of the year, though unofficially.
Those matchups set up an interesting fourth meeting Thursday night. Would the Liberty continue to roll over Las Vegas or would the Aces find a way to punch back? It turns out that the Aces’ fighting spirit returned to form.
The result alone was significant, but so too was the way Las Vegas won.
The Liberty started the game on an 8-0 run but the Aces didn’t let things get out of hand.
Guard Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum rattled off 14 points as a response and sparked a strong first half for Las Vegas that allowed the home team to carry a 13-point lead into halftime.
Adversity struck again in the third quarter, as the Liberty outscored the Aces 24-15 to make it a four-point game heading into the final quarter.
This was Las Vegas’ chance to show their mettle. Sitting at 27-3, the team has been accustomed to playing with a lead and cruising to victory.
The question became how would the Aces perform under pressure, especially against a Liberty team that was creeping closer to them for the top spot in the standings. The answer was to turn things over to their veteran point guard and their MVP.
Gray and forward A’ja Wilson took over for the Aces in the final quarter, scoring 15 of the team’s 20 points to guide Las Vegas to the win. Gray finished with 22 points while Wilson finished with 21.
Plum and fellow guard Jackie Young finished with 18 and 16 points respectively.
Gray also registered five assists in the fourth quarter to help her finish with a triple-double, the first points-rebounds-assists triple-double in franchise history.
Her effort and what she means to this Aces team isn’t lost on head coach Becky Hammon.
“She’s one of the most competitive people I know,” Hammon said. “You feel really good when Chelsea Gray is on your team. She’s a studier. She went back and watched [the last Aces vs Liberty game] and she [took] it personally.”
Gray’s energy and leadership bring exactly what this relatively young Aces team needs: a reliable presence when things get tough.
Overall, things haven’t been too tough for Las Vegas this season. Their 28-3 record is tied for the best of all-time through 31 games with the 2001 Los Angeles Sparks and the team is still in prime position to claim the league’s top seed for the playoffs.
They still have one more meeting with the Liberty on Saturday, Aug. 28 in New York, a game that will likely set the tone for the upcoming postseason. That will be the final regular season meeting of the year between the two teams.
It’s a day WNBA fans will have circled on their calendars, between teams that after the game Hammon said “are two of the best offensive teams this league has ever seen.”
The Aces’ next test comes on Saturday, August 19 against the Sparks from Michelob Ultra Arena. Los Angeles is 12-18 so far this season.
Las Vegas still needs to push forward in order to maintain their lead for the WNBA’s top team over the Liberty, who are four games behind after Thursday’s matchup.