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Aces’ defense a key heading into Game 2 against Wings

The Aces have always been versatile. Between A’ja Wilson’s post play and the team’s All-Star trio of perimeter players — Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young — coach Becky Hammon has seemingly endless ways to attack opposing teams and score points.

Speaking after Sunday’s 97-83 Game 1 win against the No. 4 Dallas Wings, however, Hammon praised her team’s defensive versatility, as the top-seeded Aces stifled the WNBA’s third-ranked offense.

“It’s just a really nice luxury as a coach to be able to mix up different looks with defensive players,” Hammon said.

The Aces host the Wings at Michelob Ultra Arena for Game 2 of the best-of-five WNBA Semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday. A win would give Hammon’s team a commanding 2-0 lead in the series before it shifts to Arlington, Texas, for Game 3.

Dallas, the league’s biggest team, provides a stark contrast offensively to the Aces’ first-round opponent, the No. 8 Chicago Sky.

While Chicago generated a majority of its offense from its perimeter players, Dallas features two 6-foot-7-inch centers in Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown. The Wings led the league in points in the lane (42.3) by a significant margin during the regular season.

The Wings were fairly efficient in Game 1, but the Aces limited McCowan and Brown to just 13 shots. For context, Dallas’ All-Star duo of Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally took 14 shots each. Hammon praised starting center Kiah Stokes’ second-half defensive performance after the game.

Fueled in part by Stokes, the Aces’ defense shined in the third quarter. Dallas scored just 12 points on 30.8 percent shooting. The Wings went 1 of 4 from 3, had three turnovers and were outrebounded 12-5. The Aces won the third quarter by 14 points.

“That third quarter, I’d love to bottle that one up defensively,” Hammon said.

Stokes has been crucial to the Aces’ defense, mainly because of her ability to switch onto guards. Wilson was recognized as the 2023 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year ahead of Game 1 and brought Stokes up with her to accept the trophy. Wilson previously joked she was going to scratch Stokes’ name onto the award.

While Stokes and Wilson anchor the defense, Hammon also praised her team’s guards for their defensive flexibility. She said Plum uses her leverage to get under opponents and make them uncomfortable, while Gray’s quick hands and ability to read angles limit passing lanes. The Aces’ guards routinely dug down against the Dallas centers for strips or steals in Game 1.

“I used to watch (two-time Defensive Player of the Year) Alana Beard do it all the time,” Gray said. “So I used to just learn from her by watching what she would see out there.”

Hammon also said Gray’s size is an advantage, pointing out how her point guard played post defense against the Connecticut Sun in the 2022 WNBA Finals, facing the likes of Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones.

Hammon clarified she didn’t teach her players how to play defense, but after a year in her system they have a better understanding of her terminology and expectations.

Young, however, may be the most important cog in the Aces’ defense. She’s strong enough to stand up bigger players and quick enough to keep up with the fastest guards. Hammon blasted the WNBA All-Defensive teams for omitting Young ahead of Game 1. Young’s performance against her former Notre Dame teammate Ogunbowale, holding her to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting, validated her coach’s claims, though Young refused to take sole credit.

“Our team defense is good,” Young said. “We just have each other’s back.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on X.

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