UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP)Las Vegas never had a professional sports champion – until Sunday.
Chelsea Gray scored 20 points to lead the Las Vegas Aces to their first WNBA title, and the city’s first pro title, in a 78-71 road win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4.
Gray went 9 of 13 from the floor, and was named Finals MVP after averaging 18.3 points in the series.
Vegas finished on an 8-0 run. As the buzzer sounded, league MVP A’ja Wilson, who played every minute of the game, grabbed the ball and stomped the floor before being mobbed by her teammates.
”We champs! We champs! We champs!” Wilson screamed at teammates as they pulled on their championship hats and T-shirts before the trophy ceremony.
Riquna Williams had 17 points for Vegas, Kelsey Plum added 16 points, Jackie Young had 13 and Wilson added 11 points to go with her 14 rebounds.
Wilson hopes this is just the beginning for the franchise.
”You see it. You see it,” Wilson said in the on-court celebration. ”This is what we’re building. This is what we’re doing. This is it. I’m so happy right now.”
Courtney Williams had 17 points to lead Connecticut and Alyssa Thomas had her second straight triple-double with 11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. Jonquel Jones added 13 points and DeWanna Bonner had 12.
”When you come up short it certainly, really hurts,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. ”But that means that there was something that mattered, and something special among that group of players.”
For Aces coach Becky Hammon, who didn’t get a title in her standout WNBA career, the ring completed a decades-long quest. She left an assistant coach position with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs to take over in Las Vegas. The move paid off.
”They’re unbelievable on the court, but they’re unbelievable humans, first and foremost,” Hammon said. ”They care about each other. They invest in each other. It’s been an absolute honor to be their coach. I saw excellence and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Hammon also paid tribute to former Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, who was on the floor for the ceremony: ”He put this team together and saw the pieces.”
Aces owner Mark Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, wasn’t with his football team Sunday. He was in Connecticut to get a trophy. He hoisted it, then turned it over to gleeful players who did the same.
”Las Vegas, we are world champions,” Davis said.
The Aces led by two points at the half and four points after three quarters. They held a six-point lead in the fourth when Plum was called for a flagrant foul after running into Bonner while the Sun guard was attempting a 3-pointer and sending her to the floor holding her right ankle.
Bonner hit all three free throws before Jones’ short jumper cut the lead to a point. The Sun then tied the game at 67 on free throw by Courtney Williams and took a 71-70 lead on two fouls shots from Brionna Jones.
But Las Vegas had the answers.
Riquna Williams 3-pointer put the Aces back on top and Gray’s step-back jumper extended the lead back to 75-71 with under a minute left. A’ja Wilson then stole a pass and Plum hit a short jump shot to secure the win.
As expected, it was a physical game – appropriately played on an NFL Sunday. The Sun got a scare when Bonner took an inadvertent elbow to the gut from Gray late in the first quarter and was on the floor for a few minutes before being helped to the bench. She came back into the game later in the half, apparently suffering no ill effects. Natisha Hiedeman and Plum got into a short pushing match in the second quarter, eliciting technical fouls for both players. That was all before Plum’s flagrant in the fourth.
NO GRAY AREA
Gray wasn’t a WNBA All-Star this season, nor was she a first-team all-league pick, and had voiced her displeasure about that. After scoring 21 points in each of the first two games of the Finals, she scored just 11 points in Game 3, but bounced back. Way back.
”They can keep that All-Star and first team,” Gray said. ”I got the ring.”
Before the game, both coaches reflected on the makeup of organizations in the Final. The Aces are led by Hammon and two Black women executives in general manager Natalie Williams and Nikki Fargas, president of business operations. The Sun are owned by the Mohegan Tribe, have a woman president in Jen Rizzotti and are coached by Curt Miller, a gay man.
”Women’s basketball is such a story in terms of diversity and inclusion. I mean, our league defines it and I’m so proud to be a part of it,” Miller said, adding that he hopes to be an inspiration to any gay child ”wondering if they can chase a career in sports.”
Hammon said she believes the diversity in her team’s front office has made it stronger.
”You can make a lot better picture with a box full of crayons than just a pencil,” she said.
VEGAS PRIDE AND PARADE
The start of the celebration was shown on the video screens at the Raiders’ stadium during the NFL game against Arizona on Sunday, with fans breaking into loud cheers.
They can cheer more in a few days: a parade on the Las Vegas Strip is planned for Tuesday night.
”What a team, what talent, what a victory! You have made Las Vegas so proud!” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a statement. ”Thank you for your effort, discipline & focus. We can’t wait for the celebrations & a great parade!”
Wilson said after the game that paradegoers should be ready for a party: ”When you come to the parade, you better be four shots in. If you ain’t four shots in, don’t come.”
The Aces improved to 4-0 in this year’s playoffs with two days rest. … Vegas is the fourth WNBA team to win a title with both a league MVP and coach of the year … The Sun came up short after having been among the last four WNBA teams standing for each of the last four seasons, making it back to the Finals for the first time since 2019.
”Nobody expected us to be here,” Bonner said. ”They expected us to lose to Chicago. They expected us to lose to Dallas. Despite all of that, we made it to the Finals.” —
This story has been corrected to show the Aces’ general manager’s first name is Natalie.
More WNBA playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-playoffs and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports