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3 takeaways: Aces raise banner, hold on in season opener — PHOTOS

Updated May 14, 2024 - 10:16 pm

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she felt “a little déjà vu” as she spoke to Aces fans during the back-to-back champions’ ring ceremony Tuesday.

But the 89-80 victory over the Phoenix Mercury couldn’t have been more different from the Aces’ 2023 home opener.

After starting last season with two road wins, the Aces cruised to a 28-point win over the Los Angeles Sparks after they received their rings. This time around, the team got off to a hot start thanks to forward A’ja Wilson but struggled to pull away.

Wilson scored 30 points, and the team survived a late rally that cut its lead to three. Jackie Young had 23 points and Kelsey Plum added 19.

Veteran guard Diana Taurasi led the Mercury with 23 points, and Kahleah Copper added 19. Natasha Cloud and Rebecca Allen each had 14.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s win:

1. Wilson takes over early

Wilson was laser-focused despite the bells and whistles of the pregame ceremony. She attempted to give a speech “on behalf of the Aces” before the banner was raised, but couldn’t get past the introductory phrase due to overwhelming “MVP” chants.

The announced crowd of 10,419 was the largest for a home game at Michelob Ultra Arena.

“Hold on people, we have a game to play,” she said.

The two-time WNBA MVP didn’t win the opening tip against Mercury forward Natasha Mack. And it didn’t matter. After Taurasi hit a quick 3-pointer for the first points of the game, Wilson quickly answered with a jumper on the other end.

It was her first of 17 points in the quarter, more than the entire Mercury team would score in the period.

Nearly halfway through the first quarter, Wilson scored her 10th point on a driving layup that turned into a three-point play after she was fouled by Allen. Before Wilson went to the line and made her free throw, she roared back at the sold-out crowd.

She followed up by converting on an offensive rebound and scoring another jumper. She continued her rally, shooting 7-for-10 from the field with four rebounds and a block to power the Aces to a 29-14 lead after the first quarter.

2. ‘We lost sight of who we are’

The Mercury went on an 8-0 run midway through the second quarter, which featured five points from Allen. Once halftime arrived, the Aces had been outscored 27-13 in the second quarter, and their lead had been cut to 42-41. The Aces made just one of 11 3-pointers in the opening half, while the Mercury converted on 8 of 17 from deep.

“I think we lost sight of who we are,” Wilson said, citing the pressures and excitement of ring night. “I feel like we were all trying to put that Superman cape on and wanting to provide for our team and be productive.”

Wilson said she spoke to her teammates during halftime about being mindful of making each other better.

“From that moment on, I was very pleased,” she said.

Although the Aces extended their lead to 83-71 in the fourth quarter, the Mercury scored nine straight points to create a three-point game with 1:17 remaining. Center Kiah Stokes and Young were tasked with closing the game after being fouled, and they were perfect from the free-throw line in the final minute.

3. Missing Gray

Both teams were short-handed.

Point guard Chelsea Gray, who missed the team’s sole preseason game, was out again Tuesday night because of a lower leg injury. Meanwhile, Phoenix center Brittney Griner didn’t play because of a fractured toe.

While coach Becky Hammon said that she feels like she has a second coach on the bench in Gray, the “point god” and her facilitating were missed on the court.

The Mercury’s zone defense caused problems for the Aces without Gray helping to identify reads. Hammon said she’s still struggling with finding a lineup she likes without the 2022 Finals MVP.

“I think we just have to get used to defensive switching up,” Hammon said. “I think as long as Chelsea’s not out there, they’re going to put pressure on us.”

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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