Professional Basketball

Aces Fend Off Liberty, Win 2023 WNBA Championship


Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark attempts a layup while being guarded by New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu during Wednesday’s WNBA Finals Game 4 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot missed a three-point shot as time expired to give the Las Vegas Aces a 70-69 win in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in front of a sellout crowd of 16,851 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday night. The victory crowned the Aces as the 2023 WNBA champions and the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Los Angeles Sparks defeated the Liberty in 2002.

Entering the game with a one game lead in the best-of-five series, the Aces came out strong. Layups from forwards A’ja Wilson and Alysha Clark, plus a three-pointer by guard Jackie Young gave Las Vegas the early 7-3 lead with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter.

The Liberty, knowing they faced elimination, regrouped and then went on an 18-4 run for the rest of the quarter, fueled by the play of Vandersloot, who hit two three-pointers and scored a layup and free throw on a three-point play. When the quarter ended, New York held a 23-13 lead.

The Aces responded with an 8-2 run to start the second quarter with a three-point play by Wilson, a layup by guard Kelsey Plum, and a three-pointer by center Cayla George, making the score 25-21 in favor of the Liberty with 7:10 left in the half.

Both teams exchanged baskets several times throughout the next few minutes, and the Aces were able to cut the deficit to one when Plum scored a layup with 2:33 left and the score 31-30. The Liberty then went on an 8-0 run with three-pointers from forward Kayla Thornton and Vandersloot, plus a layup from center Jonquel Jones with just 2.5 seconds left on the clock. New York led 39-30 at the half.

New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones attempts a shot while Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark defends during Wednesday’s WNBA Finals Game 4 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Liberty opened the third quarter with a three-pointer from guard Sabrina Ionescu, which was answered by a floater by Jackie Young. Liberty forward Breanna Stewart scored on a layup to give the Liberty their largest lead of the game at 12 points, but it was answered by a three-pointer from George. Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu scored a layup for the Liberty to make the score 46-35 with 6:50 remaining in the quarter.

Las Vegas then went on a run starting with another three-pointer by George, followed with a jump shot and a layup from A’ja Wilson. The run cut the Aces deficit down to four, and the teams began trading buckets again.

The Aces finally caught the Liberty with less than a minute to go in the third quarter. Wilson scored on a layup. She grabbed the rebound from a Vandersloot missed shot and was fouled by Jones. Wilson converted one of two free throws to make the score 51-47, and had scored the last nine Aces points in the quarter.

Stewart missed a three-point attempt, which was rebounded by Plum, who passed to Clark, who scored a reverse layup, cutting the deficit to two. After another missed Vandersloot shot, Clark scored on a layup with 34.9 seconds left to tie the game 51-51. Young stole a pass from Ionescu on the next possession and Clark was fouled while attempting a layup in transition. She sank both free shots and Las Vegas now led 53-51 at the end of the third quarter. The Aces outscored the Liberty 23-12 in the period and finished the quarter on a 9-0 run.

The momentum was clearly on the Aces side as Wilson scored a layup and Young hit a layup and a three-pointer to begin the fourth quarter with a 7-2 run. Breanna Stewart’s two free throws were the only points for New York. Las Vegas led 60-53 with 8:23 left in regulation.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu blocks a shot by Las Vegas Aces forward Alysha Clark in WNBA Finals Game 4 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Liberty guard Betnijah Laney was not going to let her team go down without a fight. She scored two layups and Ionescu hit a three-pointer to tie the score 60-60 with 5:27 left on the clock. The stress was so high that Ionescu vomited into a trash can on the sidelines during the timeout after her three-point shot.

Wilson and Vandersloot exchanged baskets. Plum was fouled by Ionescu and converted two free throws, which was answered by a putback layup from Jones. The score was tied again 64-64 with 2:44 remaining.

In the next minute of play, Young scored on a layup, was fouled by Laney and made both free throws, and Wilson connected on a turnaround shot. The Aces led by six points with just over a minute left in regulation.

Vandersloot hit a crucial three-point shot and then stole the ball from Plum, dished to Ionescu who hit a midrange jumper. It was now 70-69 in favor of the Aces with 41.7 seconds left to play.

Wilson attempted a layup, which was decisively blocked by Jones. New York called a timeout with 8.8 seconds to set up their final possession.

Ionescu inbounded the ball to Stewart, who was heavily guarded by Clark. Jackie Young came in to help on the double-team, so Stewart passed to Laney, who dished to a wide open Vandersloot in the corner. Vandersloot heaved up a three-point shot with 1.9 seconds remaining, but it went long. Jones grabbed the rebound but was unable to get the put back shot off on time. Las Vegas won by a final score of 70-69 and won the series 3-1 becoming the 2023 WNBA Champions.

New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones is double-teamed by Las Vegas Aces players during Wednesday’s WNBA Finals Game 4 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Aces went 28-for-67 in field goal shooting (41.8 percent); 5-for-21 from three-point range (23.8 percent); and 9-for-11 from the free throw line (81.8 percent). They turned the ball over 15 times leading to 14 New York points.

“This one’s sweeter. It just is. It’s harder to do,” said Aces head coach Becky Hammon. “We went from darling to villain, real quick. We had our names, our good names, slandered, and all these women did was lock in together…all we did was buckle down and keep playing.”

The Liberty went 26-for-72 from the field (36.1 percent); 9-for-26 in three-point shooting (34.6 percent); and 8-for-12 from the charity stripe (66.7 percent). They turned the ball over 13 times leading to 15 Las Vegas points.

“It’s tough to win a Game 4. It would have been nice to play a Game 5 and lay it all out on the table, but credit to Vegas. They were down and they found a way,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “It will be a hard one to learn from but in the end, I’m proud of this group and what we’ve accomplished.”

The Aces held a huge 44-24 advantage in points-in-the paint, the Liberty had the 17-4 advantage in fast break points, and they tied 7-7 in second chance points.

Las Vegas was led by 24 points from A’ja Wilson, who also led all rebounders with 16. Jackie Young added 16 points and a game-high seven assists. Wilson was named the Finals MVP.

Las Vegas Aces players and coaches jump on a pile on the Barclays Center court Wednesday night as they celebrate winning the 2023 WNBA Championship. They are the first time in 21 years to win back-to-back championships. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“We came ready to play. Everybody doubted us. We just put our foot on the gas,” said Wilson. “They had Game 3, I’m not going to lie to you, but we came back weathering the storm and now we came out on top.”

Courtney Vandersloot led New York with 19 points and six assists. Betnijah Laney added 15 points. Breanna Stewart led the Liberty with 14 rebounds.

“We’re proud that we had an opportunity to play for the championship. It didn’t go our way tonight, but this is what we came here to do,” said Vandersloot. “We’re trying to build a championship team so we’re going to use this as a learning experience. We can only get better from here and we’ll try to do it again next year.”

The 2022 defending champions will now have another year to defend their crown. They became the first time in 21 years to win back-to-back championships, the last time being in 2002 when the Los Angeles Sparks defeated the Liberty 2-0 in the best-of-three series. It was also the last time that the Liberty were in the WNBA Finals.

The Aces players know this is a historic moment and drank it in as much as possible.

“It’s historical, right? There’s a reason why it hasn’t been done in that long of a time period. It’s hard to do,” said Alysha Clark. “It’s hard to get to the Finals multiple times. I’ve been around this league long enough. I’ve been in rebuild years. I’ve been a part of championship teams. You never know when you’re going to get this moment or when you get this opportunity, regardless of what team you have.”

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum holds up the 2023 WNBA Championship trophy as her teammate cheer following WNBA Finals Game 4 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“This is what it’s all about – to have your name etched in history with other teams,” said Wilson. “We never gave up. This is the moment that we need to celebrate. This is a moment that not a lot of people get a chance to do and for us to do it and be shorthanded is truly amazing. It just makes the win that much more, that much better.”

Becky Hammon is the only person to have been a part of both Finals. She played guard for the Liberty in 2002 and coached the Aces in 2023.

“It’s just a little ironic, a little weird, honestly, that the last time this happened my team was losing, in a Liberty uniform,” said Hammon, who took the time to the thank then-Liberty head coach Richie Adubato for giving her the opportunity to play for him back then.

The last team to win three championships in a row was the Houston Comets in 1999 as part of their dynasty that won four consecutive titles. The WNBA was in its third year when Houston won its third championship. The remaining 11 teams in the league will be working hard to stop the Las Vegas Aces from being only the second team to win three in a row when play resumes next season.

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