Professional Basketball

WNBA Finals: Aces Dominate Second Half, Take Game 1 from Liberty


Las Vegas Aces forward Jackie Young scored a game-high 26 points to lead her team in a 99-82 win over the New York Liberty in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The 2023 WNBA Finals kicked off on Sunday with the Las Vegas Aces dominating the New York Liberty in the second half to take a 99-82 victory in Game 1 in front of 10,300 on hand at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.

The game started off with each team trading baskets, neither team getting a large jump on the other. The Aces jumped out to a lead on a three pointer from guard Kelsey Plum and a fast break layup by forward A’ja Wilson. New York guard Courtney Vandersloot and Aces guard Chelsea Gray then traded three-pointers. It was 13-8 in favor of the Aces with 6:33 left in the opening quarter.

The Liberty fought back with a 7-0 run a few minutes later with two free throws by center Jonquel Jones, along with a layup and three-pointer from guard Marine Johannes. The run gave the Liberty a one-point lead with the score 17-16 with 3:18 left on the clock, forcing Las Vegas head coach Becky Hammon to burn a timeout to regroup her team.

Coming out of the timeout, Aces guard Jackie Young connected on a pull up jump shot to give the Aces the lead. Wilson grabbed a rebound from a Vandersloot miss, but the two players got tied up for a jump ball. The Aces maintained possession when Young received the tip from Wilson. Gray then scored on a driving layup to give the Aces a three-point lead.

After Liberty forward Breanna Stewart scored on a hook shot, which was answered by a floater from Plum, Johannes tied the game on a three-pointer as she was fading away to her left. Guard Betnijah Laney scored on a layup and was fouled by Wilson. After making the free throw, New York led 25-22 at the end of the first quarter.

The Liberty took the momentum into the beginning of the second quarter with a 5-1 run with two field goals by Jones and a free throw by guard Sabrina Ionescu following a defensive three seconds call.

Las Vegas went on a run of their own as Wilson hit a bank shot fall away jumper, then Plum scored on a layup, a jump shot, and hit a free throw when New York was called for defensive three seconds. The score was tied 35-35 with 4:07 remaining in the half when New York called a timeout.

New York Liberty guard Marine Johannes made four three-pointers and scored 14 first half points in Sunday’s WNBA Finals Game 1 against the Las Vegas Aces. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Johannes scored a three-pointer coming out of the timeout to give the Liberty the lead. Aces forward Alysha Clark converted two free throws after being fouled by Laney. Then Johannes scored another three-pointer. New York led 41-37 with 2:48 left in the half. The teams traded baskets the rest of the way and the Liberty took a 49-46 halftime lead.

Stewart hit a shot as the third quarter got underway to extend the Liberty lead to five, but things fell apart right after. Plum and Wilson each scored and then Young converted one of two free throws after being fouled by Ionescu. This tied the score 51-51 with 8:29 left in the third period.

Stewart hit a layup to give the Liberty the lead, but then Young’s three-pointer put the Aces ahead by one. Stewart hit a jump shot to give the Liberty the lead again, then Gray nailed a three-pointer to give the Aces a two-point lead. Wilson was fouled by Jones and made one of two free throws and Young scored a layup to give the Aces the 60-55 lead with 5:22 remaining in the third quarter. New York missed three of their last four shots and called the timeout to regroup.

The Liberty pulled to within one after a layup from Laney and a put back by Jones, but a Young three-pointer followed by two jump shots from Wilson gave the Aces the margin they needed. When the quarter ended, Las Vegas held a 72-65 lead.

Las Vegas was not about to let the Liberty get back into the game. They began the game with a floater by Plum and two layups by Gray to extend their lead to 78-65 and now the Liberty battled the Aces and the clock. There was 7:56 remaining in regulation.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart led her team with 21 points in Sunday’s WNBA Finals Game 1 against the Las Vegas Aces. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Aces answered everything that the Liberty threw at them. When Laney scored on a layup, Clark scored on a hook shot. Vandersloot hit a jump shot, Plum made two free throws. When Vandersloot hit a three-pointer, Gray answered with a three-pointer of her own. When the final buzzer sounded, Las Vegas won 99-82 to take the first game in the best-of-five series.

Las Vegas went 35-for-64 from the field (54.7 percent); 9-for-22 from three-point range (40.8 percent); and 20-for-23 from the free throw line (87 percent). They turned the ball over 11 times resulting in six points for the Liberty.

“We just felt that we could do some things better,” said Aces head coach Becky Hammon. “I thought they played a pretty good first half. I didn’t like our defense in the first half so we just kind of amped up our defense, locked in and stayed solid.”

New York shot 32-for-69 from the field (46.4 percent); 9-for-29 from beyond the arc (31 percent); and 9-for-13 from the charity stripe (69.2 percent). They turned the ball over 11 times leading to 16 Aces points.

“Credit to them, their defense is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “Our guards had a little bit of a tough night. That’s not going to happen two games in a row. We believe in them. They’ve carried us all season long. We’ll still put the ball in their hands. We want them to be confident and do whatever they do.”

Las Vegas led in all three statistical categories – points-in-the-paint 42-32; second chance points 6-4; and fast break points 13-11.

Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum also scored 26 points in Sunday’s WNBA Finals Game 1 against the New York Liberty. File photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Aces were led by 26 points each from Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray scored 20 and A’ja Wilson added 19. Alysha Clark’s eight points constituted the only other scoring from the Aces. Gray led the team in assists with nine, and Wilson led in rebounding with eight.

“Game One’s are huge when it comes to the series. Away teams usually come in and want to steal it. It’s one of the games that you have to come up with,” said Wilson. “I think for us to weather the storm, go through a little bit of adversity, shake the rust off and still get the win is really big for us. Obviously we still have a lot of stuff to grow and learn from, but it’s definitely a big win.”

The Liberty was led with 21 points from Breanna Stewart. Jonquel Jones added 16 points to go with a game-high 10 rebounds. Marine Johannes added 14 points, all in the first half. Courtney Vandersloot led the team in assists with six.

“I felt like New York, apparently Johannes, likes to play against us,” Hammon said.

Said Stewart, “In the second half, the ball stopped and got stuck a little bit. That made it easier for them to clog the paint on J.J. [Jonquel Jones] or myself. We just need to continue to keep moving and trust what got us here.”

Both coaches know that even with Game 1 belonging to Las Vegas, it is back to the drawing board.

“It’s a series. They took the first punch and now we have to respond,” said Brondello.

Game 2 of the WNBA Finals is slated for Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT from Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.

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