Aces hold off Liberty to win second straight WNBA Championship

A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young celebrate their second WNBA Championship. All four averaged more than 15 points in both the regular and postseason – a league first. Wendell Cruz/USA Today sports.

The Las Vegas Aces contained the New York Liberty, 70-69, in game 4 Wednesday night to win their second consecutive WNBA Championship. They are the first franchise to go back-to-back in 21 years.

A’ja Wilson lead the way for the champs, with 24 points and 16 rebounds, and was named finals MVP. Jackie Young added 16 points and 7 assists, while Kelsey Plum had 7 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Cayla George and Alysha Clark, who were filling in for injured starters Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, had 11 and 10 points, respectively.

“It’s not easy, as you know. This is what it’s all about,” Wilson said. “Not a lot of people get to do it. To be short-handed and win is amazing. It makes the win that much better. It’s hard to get back to the Finals to win again.”

After a back-and-forth battle in the first half, the score was tied at 64 late in the fourth, when a Las Vegas run put them up 70-64 with 1:26 to go. A three by Courtney Vandersloot, who then stole the ball to set Sabrina Ionescu up for a jump shot, got New York to within one, with 41.7 seconds left.

Breanna Stewart blocked Wilson’s shot on the next possession, to give the Liberty one more chance. The ball went to Stewart with 8.8 seconds, but she was double-teamed, and passed to Vandersloot, who missed badly. The Aces ran to each other at mid-court to celebrate as the clock expired.

Vandersloot lead four of her teammates in double figures, with 19 points and 5 assists.

Las Vegas had faced adversity all season long. In July, All-Star Candace Parker had surgery for a stress fracture in her foot, and never returned to the lineup. A few weeks later, starting guard Riquna Williams was arrested on domestic violence charges, and was suspended from the team. In game 3 of the finals, Gray sustained a foot injury, and along with starter Kiah Stokes, who also injured her foot, both were out for game 4.

To begin the year, coach Becky Hammon was suspended for two games after former Las Vegas guard Dearica Hamby accused her and the franchise of fostering a hostile environment towards her. A few weeks ago, she filed a complaint against the team.

“This team has responded all year,” Plum said. “We’ve been hurt, sued, arrested, you name it.”

Stewart said the lockdown strategy of her opponents proved effective.

“I think they were throwing whatever defense they had at us and make sure it’s ugly,” she said. “Sometimes we lost our flow and ball movement.”

None of the previous matchups between the two “super-teams” had been close, including the first two games of the finals, which the Aces dominated. They won the final game with three starters and four bench players.

Hammon, who has now won two titles in her first two years coaching in the WNBA, said this one is even better than last season’s.

“This one’s sweeter,” she said, as her team joined the Houston Comets and Los Angeles Sparks as the WNBA’s only back-to-back champs.

“It just is. It’s harder to do.”