Prospect Heights

Aces high as Liberty eliminated in Game 4

Vegas wins first back-to-back WNBA titles since 2001-02

October 19, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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The New York Liberty know exactly what it takes to win a WNBA title.

Unfortunately for Brooklynites, they had to learn that sobering lesson from the back-to-back champion Las Vegas Aces.

The short-handed but resilient Aces got 24 points and 16 rebounds from Finals Most Valuable Player A’ja Wilson en route to a scintillating 70-69 Game 4 victory over the stunned Liberty in front of 16,851 disappointed fans at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

“We fought through so much adversity throughout the season and we came out on top,” Wilson beamed at midcourt after leading Vegas to the first consecutive championships in the WNBA since the Los Angeles Sparks accomplished the feat in 2001-02.

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The Houston Comets won four straight titles from 1997 to 2000, with three of those triumphs coming against the Liberty, who are still seeking their first crown since entering the league during its inaugural 1997 season.

Vegas starting point guard Chelsea Gray and center Kiah Stokes were forced to watch from courtside with foot injuries while Wilson went 11-of-21 from the field, picked up a steal and blocked a shot in 39 minutes on the floor.

Down by as many as 12 points in the second half, the Aces used an 18-5 run to close out the third quarter, taking a 53-51 lead into the fourth.

Finals MVP A’ja Wilson soars past Liberty forward Jonquel Jones on the way to two of her game-high 24 points Wednesday in Downtown Brooklyn.

Jonquel Jones’ layup with 2:44 to play got New York even at 64-64, but Jackie Young answered with a quick basket for the defending champions and added two free throws before Wilson sank an eight-foot turnaround to give Vegas a 70-64 cushion with 1:27 remaining.

Bloodied but unbowed, the Liberty fought tooth and nail down the stretch to pull this one out.

Courtney Vandersloot drilled a 3-pointer from the corner and backcourt mate Sabrina Ionescu, who vomited into a trash basket next to the Liberty bench in the fourth quarter, knocked down an 18-foot pull-up jumper to shave the deficit to one.

Jones blocked what could have been a game-sealing layup by Wilson on the other end before New York dribbled down and called timeout with 8.8 ticks left on the clock.

WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart got the ball on the inbounds pass, but drew double coverage before finding Vandersloot in the corner again with time winding down. 

She uncorked an 18-footer that missed everything with 1.1 seconds left before the ball landed into the sure hands of Jones, who caught it clean but got her attempt at a game-winner up after the buzzer, leaving the Liberty to lament what could have been.

“I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trust her,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “But it didn’t work out. I’d still do it again. I think that’s the right call.

“It’s a play we’ve ran before, get the ball to Stewie’s hand,” she added. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We got it where we wanted to, but didn’t make it.”

Stewart, who struggled with her shooting touch throughout the postseason, only managed 10 points against the tenacious Vegas defense, going 3-for-17 from the field. 

She did grab 14 rebounds and Jones added six points and 11 boards, but the Liberty’s dynamic duo got shut down in the final game of the campaign.

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

Vandersloot finished with a team-high 19 points, Betnijah Laney had 15 and Ionescu added 13 for New York, which established a new franchise record for wins in a season, breezed through two rounds of the playoffs and reached the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2002.

Only to come up short with a chance to push the series to a fifth and decisive game in Las Vegas.

“Of course, we’re disappointed. It’s tough,” Brondello admitted. “It would have been nice to play a Game 5 (Friday night) and lay it all out on the table.”

Jackie Young scored 16 points, Cayla George, filling in for Stokes, added 11 and Alysha Clark had 10 points and eight boards for Vegas, which lost just one playoff game on the path to completing the winningest season in WNBA history.

“There’s not a person (in my locker room) that I don’t believe in,” said Aces coach Becky Hammon, who played for the Liberty from 1999 to 2006. “I’m forever indebted to New York. New York gave me my first opportunity and I’m not standing here without the New York Liberty.” 

The Las Vegas Aces beat the Liberty at Barclays Center Wednesday to become the first back-to-back WNBA champions since 2001-02.

“The resiliency of this team, the character of this team. We’ve got some fighters,” added Clark.

So do the Liberty, who should have most of their squad intact for a run at the 2024 crown.

But the title that slipped through their fingers should both haunt and inspire them from now until next season.

“It’ll be a hard one to learn from,” Brondello said. “Remember how it feels and use it as motivation.”

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Jones broke the WNBA record for rebounds in a single postseason in Game 4, grabbing her 115th in the fourth quarter. … While the Liberty saw their season come to a bitter end, the Brooklyn Nets completed their exhibition slate with a 2-2 record after edging the Heat, 107-104, in Miami Wednesday night. Reserve center Day’Ron Sharpe put up 19 points and 11 rebounds for Brooklyn, which will open its campaign next Wednesday night at Barclays against visiting Cleveland. 


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