Aces finish off Wings with ‘ugly’ win, return to WNBA Finals

Michael Voepel, ESPN.comSep 30, 2023, 12:18 AM ET

CloseMichael Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

ARLINGTON, Texas — From an aesthetic standpoint, the Las Vegas Aces’ semifinal series-clinching 64-61 victory over the Dallas Wings on Friday got a thumbs-down from Aces coach Becky Hammon.

But Hammon and the Aces were happy all the work they’ve done on defense this season paid off. That was the key to finishing their 3-0 sweep and giving them plenty of time to prepare for the WNBA Finals, which will start in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Las Vegas held the Wings scoreless in the final five minutes, finishing on an 11-0 run. As great as the Aces can look offensively — they led the WNBA in scoring (92.8 PPG) during a 34-6 regular season — their improvement on defense really stood out Friday night. The Aces also led the league in defensive rating (99.2) this season.

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“This was a real gut-check type of win,” Hammon said. “Kudos to our defense holding it down and giving us a chance to crawl back into that game. Not the prettiest of games. We’re happy to be walking out of here with a win.

“At the end of the day, you have to take a look at our entertainment value, too. People don’t want to see a game in the 60s. It should be the finest display of basketball that the WNBA has right now. It was very ugly basketball.”

Still, Hammon credited the Wings with doing everything they could to disrupt the Aces and star A’ja Wilson, who had scored at least 30 points her three previous games. Friday, Wilson was held to 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting and had a career-high nine turnovers.

Defensively, though, she was again the player of the game, grabbing 13 rebounds and holding the Wings to 1-of-10 shooting when she was the primary defender.

In the series, the Wings shot just 7-of-44 (15.9%) against Wilson as the primary defender, showing why she won the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the second season in a row.

“Especially when it’s not going as well for me on the offensive end, I try to see what I can do to get my team and me going,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t have to be an offensive rhythm, but a defensive rhythm. It’s like, ‘If I’m not scoring, I can’t let you score.'”

Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale scored with 4:59 left in the game to put the Wings up by eight. But they didn’t score again. All series, the Wings had tried to use their size advantage, but the Aces for the most part didn’t let that happen.

Ogunbowale led the Wings with 18 points, but she managed just 8-of-24 shooting from the field. Dallas forward Satou Sabally, who won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award, was 2-of-15 Friday and 12-of-46 in the series.

“They were so adamant about pounding it and pounding it inside. That’s who they are,” Hammon said. “I knew it was going to come down to improving defensively this season. It’s been a point of emphasis all year.”

Aces guard Chelsea Gray was on the Los Angeles Sparks teams that went to back-to-back Finals in 2016 and 2017, winning the first and falling in the second. The Aces are the first defending champions since the Sparks to make the Finals again. Gray led Las Vegas with 15 points on Friday.

“This is a special group,” Gray said. “We were down, but we were like, ‘It’s fine.’ Our composure in our huddles and how tight and locked in we were … and everybody who came in knew what we were doing.”

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