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February 21, 2019

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A’ja Wilson scores 20 as Aces open with exhibition win

Laimbeer

Jessica Hill / AP

In this Aug. 29, 2015, file photo, New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer watches during the team’s WNBA basketball game against the Connecticut Sun in Uncasville, Conn. Laimbeer will be the new coach and general manager of the San Antonio Stars when the team moves to Las Vegas.

A’ja Wilson’s first “welcome to the pros” moment came at the start of the second quarter, when head coach Bill Laimbeer told his prized 6-foot-5 rookie to sub back into the Las Vegas Aces’ exhibition opener.

Wilson dutifully headed for the scorer’s table, only for Laimbeer to remind her that’s not how pros check in.

“When coach subbed me in and I ran to the scorer’s table, he was like, ‘No, this is professional basketball, you don’t do that,’” Wilson laughed after the game. “I was like, ‘Duh, Aja, you’re not in college anymore.’”

Wilson said the moment served to settle her nerves, but if she was feeling any anxiety about her WNBA debut, it didn’t last long. The No. 1 overall pick in last month’s draft scored the Aces’ first nine points and finished with a team-high 20 points in a 98-63 win over the Chinese National Team.

It was the first game for Las Vegas’ newest professional team, and while the atmosphere at the remodeled Mandalay Bay Events Center couldn’t quite match the Golden Knights fever that is currently sweeping the city, it was a successful debut.

With 2,091 fans in attendance, the building got loud at all the right times. The crowd noise swelled when Wilson scored the first (exhibition) point in Aces history with a free throw two minutes into the game. Less than a minute later, Wilson got the fans going again by finishing a fast-break layup for the team’s first basket.

Wilson followed with an elbow jumper, a finish at the rim and a driving layup before subbing out late in the first quarter.

It couldn’t have been a better start for the face of the franchise, and Laimbeer said it was by design.

“We wanted to establish her and her presence on our basketball team and show the world what capability she has,” Laimber said. “Especially in our pro game, the lane is so much bigger, one of her greatest strengths is she can drive the basketball quick and aggressively, so the lane is open for her. I think she learned a little bit about that. She still had a little nervousness to start … but overall I thought it was a really solid performance for her. Twenty points in 21 minutes and seven rebounds and a couple blocked shots — that’s pretty good for her first time with the pressure on her.”

Aside from Wilson’s scoring outbursts (and occasional Golden Knights score updates on the video board), the next-biggest crowd reaction came when Las Vegas native Sequoia Holmes checked into the game midway through the first quarter. Holmes stripped her Chinese counterpart at midcourt on her first defensive possession and raced the other way before dropping a pass to Wilson for a layup.

Holmes finished with five points and four steals, and the Aces outscored the Chinese National Team by 12 points in the 11 minutes she was on the floor.

Homes said the atmosphere inside the building was encouraging for the new team on the block.

“It was great,” Holmes said. “Really exhilarating to see the city really is behind us and coming out and supporting a professional basketball team. They give you a lot of energy out there.”

The Aces will play one more preseason game (at the Dallas Wings on May 13) before the regular season opens with a road game at the Connecticut Sun on May 20.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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