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Aces grind out gritty Game 1 Finals win over Sun

Updated September 11, 2022 - 5:08 pm

The Aces’ A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray don’t think any part of coach Becky Hammon’s halftime talk during Sunday’s 67-64 Game 1 win in the WNBA Finals can be repeated.

The only thing they can say is that she was mad.

“There are children watching,” Gray said.

With her team trailing 38-34 and struggling against the rugged defense of the Connecticut Sun, Hammon lit into her team. Everything the team had talked about before their best-of-five series against the Sun had gone out the window.

“Points in the paint, rebounding, hustle points, transition points, second-chance points,” Hammon said, “we didn’t do any of them — until the second half.”

The top-seeded Aces rallied defensively and did just enough on offense to clinch the win against the No. 3 Sun in front of a sellout crowd of 10,135 fans at Michelob Ultra Arena. It’s the first Finals win in franchise history and gives the Aces a 1-0 series lead.

“It was a game we needed,” Wilson said.

The fifth-year forward was presented with her 2022 WNBA MVP award before the game and led the Aces with 24 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Gray had 21 points and three assists, and the Aces received a major contribution from Dearica Hamby in her first significant minutes since returning from a right knee bone contusion.

The Sun was led by 19 points from All-Star forward Alyssa Thomas, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. Center Jonquel Jones, the 2021 MVP, added 15 points and nine rebounds.

Forward DeWanna Bonner missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining. The Aces outscored the Sun 33-26 in the second half.

“Happy that we won. It’s better than losing,” Hammon said.

The Aces and Sun are back at Michelob Ultra Arena for Game 2 at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

1. Sun play their game

The Aces shot 20.8 percent from beyond the arc Sunday and assisted on just eight of their 23 field goals. They finished with no points in transition, and All-Star guard Kelsey Plum only made one field goal.

Hammon insisted the team’s offensive struggles came down to a combination of the Sun’s defense and the Aces missing shots, but Connecticut forced the Aces to play the Sun’s style of basketball. They slowed the pace and made individual players hit difficult shots.

The second quarter was the epitome of the Sun’s approach. After blitzing Connecticut in the first quarter, the Aces scored nine points on 20 percent shooting from the field.

“We got to our pillars, we got to the game plan and started to get the kind of game we feel we need to be successful,” Sun coach Curt Miller said.

2. Rebounding

Connecticut is built big. Jones, Bonner and Thomas all stand 6-foot-2 or taller. They led the league in rebounds and offensive rebounds per game during the regular season. The Sun outrebounded the Aces 23-16 in the first half, including eight offensive rebounds which they turned into eight second-chance points.

The Aces turned it around in the second half. They won the rebounding battle 17-15 and only gave up two second-chance points.

“You don’t have to be the biggest and baddest,” Hammon said.

3. Fourth-quarter defense

Neither team’s offense showed up for the fourth quarter, but the Aces’ defense proved superior. They held the Sun to 11 points on 27.8 percent shooting, mixing in a zone defense to clog the lane.

Jones went 0 of 3 and Bonner 0 of 4 during the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, four points from Gray and Plum’s lone field goal, a 3-pointer with 4:30 remaining, were just enough to help the Aces secure the win.

“We’ve come a very, very long way,” Wilson said “We still have a lot of work to do, but I think we do take a lot of pride in getting it done on the defensive side.”

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

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