Thanks to big runs in the middle quarters, the Las Vegas Aces took a 1-0 series lead over the Phoenix Mercury following a 96-90 win Tuesday, Sept. 28 from Michelob Ultra Arena.
Las Vegas outscored Phoenix, 55-36, in the second and third quarters after falling behind by as much as nine in the opening frame.
“I told our players ‘Nothing is easy,’” head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “I don’t care if you’re playing one versus eight or one versus twelve or intense playoff games -- it’s hard.”
It was the first game in nine days for the Aces while it was the third game in six days for the Mercury.
Both teams will get a day of rest before playing game two from the Michelob Ultra Arena Thursday, Sept. 30.
“It’s extremely important that we protect home court,” Laimbeer said. “That’s what professional sports is. I told our players ‘We didn’t do anything tonight except do what we were supposed to do.’”
Las Vegas was led by playoff career nights from two players in guards Riquna Williams and Kelsey Plum.
Williams led the way with 26 points with four made three-pointers.
“I was just telling Kelsey rupturing my achilles in 2016, I feel like I missed my opportunity,” she said. “So for me, it’s a different focus and a different chip on my shoulder.”
In 2016, Williams was left off Los Angeles’ roster after sustaining an injury in Dubai. That year, the Sparks won it all.
Former Sparks teammate and current teammate Chelsea Gray spoke about how much this opportunity appeared to mean to Williams.
“I think it was everything for her,” she said. “The ability to play at such a high level, I’m really extremely proud of her and the way she maintained her focus this entire night. It’s one game but to come out in a series and be able to do that speaks to the type of player and person she is.”
Williams scored 14 points in the first quarter and 17 of the Aces’ first 21 points, matching her previous playoff career-high in the second quarter.
“[I was just] taking advantage of anything they [gave] me,” she said before also crediting “not overthinking.”
Even with that start, Las Vegas didn’t have its first lead until nearly four and a half minutes into the second.
From there Gray took control of the game, performing three highlight plays in the process.
With the Acces up two, Gray dished a behind-the-back pass to guard Jackie Young for a mid-range jumper.
Later in the quarter, with the shot clock winding down, Gray went up-and-under to beat the buzzer pushing the lead to five.
And lastly, right before halftime when she put the dribble moves on center Brittney Griner to drain a deep two.
“I think we were able to get stops and run in transition,” Gray said. “When we’re able to get stops and play in transition like that, we’re very difficult to guard.”
Gray scored 11 of her 17 points in the first half to go along with a game-high 12 assists.
Plum took over in the third quarter, scoring 12 of her 25 points in the third quarter en route to 20 second half points.
“I think it’s just consistency,” Plum said. “I think we’ve been doing that pretty much all year, in terms of coming off the bench and bringing energy.”
Last year’s league MVP A’ja Wilson scored three straight baskets in the fourth quarter on the way to 15 points and nine rebounds.
“Our game plan is to push the pace,” Laimbeer said. “That’s who we are -- that’s what we do. We’re athletic and we’re young, for the most part, and we want to go. And that pace will tire people out.”
Wilson has now scored in double figures in nine straight playoff games dating back to last year.
The Mercury trio of Griner and guards Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi combined for 54 points on 20-of-42 from the field.
This includes scoring 20 total points in a first quarter where Phoenix outscored Las Vegas 30-21.
“Give credit to Phoenix, they played a very fine basketball game tonight,” Laimbeer said. “[It] came out in the opening quarter and really took it to us, made a lot of shots. But we hung in there, which was a good test for us.”
The Mercury blasted out to an 8-0 lead on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting while holding the Aces scoreless in three attempts.
In addition, Phoenix made three of its first four three-point attempts and five of their first 12 first quarter attempts before going cold.
Over the next 14 three-point attempts, the Mercury would make only two tries.
The Big 3 of Griner, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith did not score until 2:19 left in the second quarter after that fast start.
Taurasi took a hard fall in the third quarter and was seen favoring her left knee in the fourth quarter.
After the game, head coach Sandy Brondello said she expects Taurasi to play Thursday night but it ultimately depends on how she feels in the morning.