Aces season ends as team falls short against Mercury, 87-84
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
It was a back-and-forth affair that resulted in the Las Vegas Aces falling short of reaching the WNBA Finals in back-to-back seasons.
The Phoenix Mercury defeated the Aces, 87-84, in game five from the Michelob Ultra Arena Friday, Oct. 8.
“Someone has to lose and we did,” head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “I thought we hung in there with a bad first half. [We] took control in the third quarter and then didn’t make the plays we needed to in the fourth quarter and [Phoenix] did.” The win sends Phoenix to the WNBA Finals for a matchup with the Chicago Sky.
On the other hand, Las Vegas fell short of becoming the eighth team in league history to reach the WNBA Finals the year after losing it.
“I give [the Mercury] all the credit,” Laimbeer said. “They hung in there, they weathered the storm. They went to their two big guns and they made all the plays down-the-stretch.”
Even with the loss, the Aces were able to turn in the largest crowd in team history with a 9,680 total attendance number.
“I think that it’s a good learning experience for us hopefully,” Laimbeer said. “Wherever this team goes and who we have on the team or wherever their travels take them with other teams, learn about what happened today.”
“Learn about how hard it is and how mental strong you have to be, individually and collectively.”
Following the game, guard Chelsea Gray and forward A’ja Wilson could be seen folded over at halfcourt and under the basket in front of the team’s bench as the emotions poured out.
“I think that’s one of the traits we have to gain,” Laimbeer said when speaking on mental toughness. “[The Mercury] have two outstanding mentally strong players in Taurasi and center Brittney Griner. They will that onto their team.
“We need to acquire that trait. Whether we grow up or acquire something but its something that this team has consistently lacked throughout the course of the year.”
Las Vegas built a double-digit second half lead that was washed away with a 10-0 start by Phoenix in the fourth quarter.
Guard Diana Taurasi scored 11 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter including back-to-back threes that forced a Laimbeer timeout with the Mercury up two.
“Taurasi obviously is going to try to take over the game,” Laimbeer said. “Griner is going to be Griner and make shots when she does. Throughout the course of the series, [we] didn’t get the calls that Taurasi got down-the-stretch. But they called them.”
With a chance to tie the game with 4.8 seconds left, Wilson drove the lane and had her game-tying shot attempt blocked by Griner.
An ensuing foul sent the Mercury to the line with 0.7 seconds left.
“No, she was not the first option,” Laimbeer said. “But however, she was the alternative. They took away our first option and we went to A’ja. She’s very capable of scoring, she had a good move, she had a good opening. They just made a good play and got a hand on the ball.”
Las Vegas found itself in a close contest late after another big third quarter, a frame that the team has won in all of it’s victories prior to game five.
After trailing by two at halftime, the Aces went on a 10-0 run with the game tied at 46, taking their first lead since 7-5 in the first quarter.
Las Vegas built a lead as large as 10 points that quarter, winning the frame, 24-14.
Center Liz Cambage scored eight of her 10 points in that quarter.
However, the fourth quarter could not provide the same as the team was outscored 29-18 in the final 10 minutes.
“[It was] nothing defensively, we turned the ball over a couple of times,” Laimbeer said. “Missed some open shots. That’s where I go back to the leadership [...] we’re still a young team that’s growing up. This is our third year in the conference finals and we’re learning. We’re just not there yet.”
The big third quarter was needed as the Aces were attempting to crawl out of an early hole after the Mercury built a lead as large as 10 in the first quarter.
Las Vegas missed 10 of its first 14 shot attempts despite forcing Phoenix into six turnovers.
Guards Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray led the team in scoring with 22 points apiece.
“Kelsey Plum did everything I asked of her this year,” Laimbeer said. “To come off the bench and be that spark plug for us and help lead this team. Late in the season, she took on more of a leadership mantle. Which was wonderful, I asked her to do that and she did.”
Plum made each of her first three three-point attempts, scoring nine of the team’s first 22 points.
She added a late and-one to put the Aces up two with 3:51 left in regulation.
“I’m just proud to be a Las Vegas Ace,” Plum said. “It’s really hard to gather my thoughts right now because we were so close and that’s why it hurts. But I wouldn’t want to do it with another group.
“I do know that we’ll be back, I have no doubt in my mind and the result will be different.”
Gray hit a big three-pointer to tie the game at 84 apiece, one of her two made threes on the night.
“I feel like we played together as much as possible,” she said. “We tried to stay mentally strong, it just didn’t go our way tonight. It’s a series and we brought it back home to try and finish it off. So we’ll learn from this and like KP said, ‘We’ll be back.’”
Wilson added another double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes of play.
With a long offseason ahead, Laimbeer was candid in his postgame press conference, admitting he’s unsure of what changes may lie ahead for the team.
“What happens going forward? I’m unclear,” Laimbeer said. “Throughout the course of the season, I think we did the best of our ability to understand who we are and what we’re about. It was a very difficult situation to manage -- with a lot of good players and trying to find playing time.”