Las Vegas, NV – The second-year Las Vegas Aces continued to show the depth, talent, offensive firepower and promise that has many selecting them as the sexy pick to finish the season as WNBA champs in their game against the visiting Connecticut Sun. Unfortunately, Sunday afternoon’s game also revealed some issues that Head Coach Bill Laimbeer and his charges will need to figure out if they want to fully realize that promise.
Although superstar center Liz Cambage had already made her debut in an Aces uniform in the team’s previous game on Friday night in Phoenix -finishing with 13 points and two rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench in an 86-84 loss- Sunday night was the Las Vegas faithful’s first opportunity to see the league’s returning scorer from last year finally make her much-anticipated first appearance in front of the home crowd.
While Laimbeer still elected to have veteran pivot Caroline Swords in the starting lineup and bring Cambage off the bench, she made it clear that despite her claim that she is not quite 100% she is still a tough- if not impossible- cover for any team, dropping an efficient 14 points in 14 minutes of playing time.
Sophomore sensation A’ja Wilson bounced back from arguably her worst game as a pro in Phoenix, and overcame an unexplained sudden allergic reaction a she helped set the tone on the defensive end early, blocking a Sun shot attempt on the first possession of the game, and then knocking down a long jumper from the perimeter to open the scoring for the Aces. Wilson’s sound shooting (9-for-11 from the field) and wonderful work on the glass (9 rebounds) would be a familiar and recurring theme in the first half, as she got out to a blistering start with nine very efficient points in the opening quarter.
Wilson was aggressive throughout and finished with 22 big points on the night, followed by the normally sharp-shooting McBride with a below average 13 points simply wasn’t enough as the lack of production from the starting backcourt of Jackie Young and Plum (a combined zero points) along with still-unsettled rotations do not yet have the team operating at peak efficiency.
Laimbeer went back to three of his starters plus soon-to-be presumptive starter at center in combining Plum, McBride, and Wilson along with Cambage and Tamera Young for the game’s final 3:00 of regulation. However, the Aces could not break the seal that was seemingly placed on their basket, and with just two minutes to go in the game, Colson would once again enter the game to replace Plum at point guard. After falling victim yet again to poor communication and slow close out on defense, Alyssa Thomas would knock down an open look from three, and then Wilson and Tamera Young were not on the same page on offense, resulting in the team’s 21st painful turnover of the game.
Wilson and her frontcourt mate Dearica Hamby would put forth their best efforts to overcome the otherwise sloppy play, as Wilson would find Hamby down low with a nice touch pass who to pull the Aces back to within six points, at 78-72, but when Sydney Colson coughed the ball up on the ensuing possession things became academic, as the Aces would add on another basket yet ultimately fall by a final score of 80-74, with many including Laimbeer, pinpointing the Aces 14 second-half turnovers as the largest contributing factor in the loss.
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When Laimbeer elected to insert Liz Cambage into the game with 2:22 to go in the quarter, she was met with a rousing round of applause as her hometown fans officially welcomed her onto her new homecourt for the first time. Cambage quickly gave them an even bigger reason to celebrate, as she converted on a contested layup and the subsequent free throw to complete the three-point play to put the Aces ahead by 4, a lead that they would actually increase as the game entered into the second quarter, with the Aces up 24-18.
Laimbeer’s bench would once again show that despite not receiving as much fanfare as their more celebrated counterparts in the starting lineup, they may actually prove to be a strength of the team as well, as Sydney Colson, Dearica Hamby and Sugar Rodgers all made solid contributions off the bench. At one point early in the second, Laimbeer even stole a few minutes with five reserves sharing the court, as JiSu Park also got some floor time spelling Cambage and Swords.
Wilson would continue her aggressive play in the second quarter, as well as her rapidly expanding offensive arsenal, as she knocked down a jumper from 18 feet, and then followed that up by showing off some fancy footwork in spinning her way through the lane on the way to a nifty lefty layup. Courtney Williams continued to pace the Sun in scoring with her deft handle and touch in the lane
Jonquel Jones and Shakenna Stricklen were able to find success on the offensive end in the early going, along with guard Courtney Williams was able to capitalize on some sloppy play with the ball by the Aces, who would likely have been up by a more sizable score than three at the half, were it not for committing so many turnovers.
Cambage and Wilson would finally show glimpses of how dangerous they can be together, as they worked the high post-low post interior passing game to perfection, with Wilson finding Cambage for a nice layup right before the halftime buzzer to put the hometown Aces up by a score of 43-40 at the half.
For the third game in a row, Laimbeer chose to go with a starting five consisting of Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young as the starting backcourt along with Kayla McBride and Wilson up front and Swords in the middle.
The opening moments of the second half continued to see the home team squander possessions and turn the ball over at a much higher rate than Laimbeer would have liked. The bench continued to contribute as Park, Colson, and Tamera Young all made plays. Cambage would re-enter the game with about four-and-a-half minutes to play in the third quarter, and she would unselfishly find Kayla McBride (13 points on 5-for-14 shooting from the field), who knocked down the open three-pointer.
However, sloppy play and turnovers would continue to haunt the Aces, who had committed 21 turnovers in all, leading to a huge 32 points for the Sun, a point that was not lost on the do-Everything McBride, who astutely pointed out that was ultimately the deciding factor in the game.
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The Aces would continue to be haunted by turnovers would in the 4th, and Connecticut would continue to make them pay as they were able to increase their lead, thanks to careless and sloppy play by the home team.
Sugar Rodgers would later show why she may be Hamby and Colson’s closest competition in the running for Sixth Woman of the Year as she saw a desperation three late in the shot clock bank in off the glass, to which she playfully gave an explanatory shrug a la Michael Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals against the Portland TrailBlazers.