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July 26, 2021

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Coming up Aces: If Las Vegans aren’t tuned in to their WNBA team, they should be

Aces beat Atlanta Dream 89-79

AP

Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson, left, backs into the defense of Atlanta Dream’s Shekinna Stricklen during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The Las Vegas Aces wrapped up the regular season September 13 with an 86-84 victory against Seattle, the team that spent the most time atop the standings during the abbreviated 2020 WNBA campaign played. Having already locked up a top seed and a two-round bye for the playoffs, the Aces didn’t have much on the line in Sunday’s finale; the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage doesn’t mean much when you’re playing in a pandemic bubble in Bradenton, Florida, instead of at the House, aka Mandalay Bay Events Center.

But they persisted. Led by 23 points apiece from forwards A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby, the Aces took advantage of the absence of Storm stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart and offset a 30-point effort from Jewell Loyd to notch their sixth consecutive win. It was a perfect demonstration of the resilience of this team, the focus and determination that has turned the Aces from an exciting squad with potential into a legitimate championship contender.

This was unexpected. Las Vegas set up in the “Wubble” without two of its top players, dominant center Liz Cambage (who sat out the season with a medical exemption) and backcourt staple Kelsey Plum (recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon). All-stars Wilson—named the AP’s WNBA Player of the Year on September 15—and Kayla McBride carried the load with help from Hamby, the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year two years running, and veteran wing Angel McCoughtry, a five-time all-star who spent her last season in Atlanta rehabbing a knee injury.

It was assumed the Aces would snag one of eight playoff spots, but few figured they’d finish in first place. “A lot of people weren’t expecting us to even be where we are,” Wilson said after Sunday’s win. “We kind of use that as fuel and just keep going. We are who we are. We’re not going to change up. We have our system, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Even without Cambage and Plum, depth has made the difference for the Vegas squad. Hamby and second-year guard Jackie Young have thrived, center Carolyn Swords came out of retirement to provide stability in the middle, and first-year Aces Lindsay Allen and Danielle Robinson contribute energy on both ends of the floor. When MVP candidate Wilson needs a break, McCoughtry takes over and imposes her will on the opposition.

There’s a lot of talent in the playoffs, especially on the rosters of teams from LA, Minnesota and Phoenix, but most observers are predicting Vegas versus Seattle for the title. The Aces will wait to see who advances and play the first in a five-game semifinal series starting September 20. The WNBA Finals begin October 2.

Vegas fans have embraced the team since it relocated from San Antonio and began playing on the Strip in 2018, but attendance at the House was down 12% in the Aces’ second season. MGM Resorts owns the team and hosted the WNBA All-Star Game at Mandalay Bay on July 27, 2019.

Every professional sports league is promoting social justice awareness in its own way in 2020, but new WNBA fans in Las Vegas and beyond might not be aware of the league’s longstanding commitment to the cause, which starts with the players—professional athletes whose compensation and media coverage fall far below their male counterparts in the NBA. The WNBA and its players union have dedicated this season to women who have died in connection with police action and racial violence.

The Aces’ McCoughtry came up with the idea to put Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of every player’s jersey, and Wilson is a member of the league’s newly formed Social Justice Council. The W is full of heroes and role models, and these two just might help bring Las Vegas its first professional sports championship. You won’t know if you don’t watch.