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Aces pull away from Mercury in WNBA playoff opener

Updated August 17, 2022 - 10:14 pm

Aces point guard Chelsea Gray immediately popped up.

Gray took a hard foul from Phoenix Mercury center Megan Gustafson with 6:54 remaining and leaped to her feet after hitting the ground, seemingly to confront her opponent.

Referees and players from both sides quickly separated the pair, and instead, Gray turned to the crowd and began gesturing for them to turn up the noise.

“I got a little upset,” Gray said.

The foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 1 and helped jump-start Gray and the Aces, who pulled away from the Mercury in a physical Game 1 of the first-round series 79-63 in front of a crowd of 8,725 at Michelob Ultra Arena.

Guard Kelsey Plum scored 22 points and Gray 17 to lead the Aces. It’s the first playoff victory in coach Becky Hammon’s career.

“Hard-fought game there for three quarters,” Hammon said. “They gave us a great shot.”

The Aces and Mercury will play Game 2 at 6 p.m. Saturday. The home team will clinch a spot in the WNBA semifinals with a win.

Here are three takeaways from Game 1:

1. Second-quarter defense

The Aces got off to a difficult start offensively. A’ja Wilson’s jumper refused to fall — she shot 1 of 8 in the first half — and until Jackie Young found some rhythm in the second quarter, the Aces struggled to separate themselves from the Mercury.

Things began to change in the second quarter. The Mercury scored just four points through the first five minutes and shot 24 percent overall and 28.6 percent on 3-pointers in the period.

Lacking consistent 3-point shooting, Phoenix tried to attack the rim, but the Aces’ forwards — Wilson and Kiah Stokes in particular — swarmed to the ball and altered shots.

2. Rebounding keeps Phoenix close

The Aces shot a higher percentage and hit more 3s on better efficiency in the first half, but the Mercury trailed by only five points at halftime.

Phoenix stayed within reach because of its offensive rebounding. Led by forward Brianna Turner, the Mercury had seven offensive rebounds in the first half. Turner had four, giving her more than the Aces.

“It’s a team effort,” Hammon said. “You don’t have to be big to rebound. What you do have to do is be deliberate, be intentional, understand angles and go after it.”

3. Composed finish

Despite their short-handed roster and an injury to point guard Shey Peddy late in the third quarter, the Mercury trailed by just five points after three quarters. But the Aces stayed composed and executed better in the final 10 minutes.

Gray was a large part of that, scoring nine of her 17 points in the fourth quarter. The Flagrant 1 by Gustafson launched a Gray run, as she hit a 3 off the inbounds pass after making her free throws, then rocked into a step-back jumper on the next possession.

“You watch Chelsea, and you know she loves these moments,” Hammon said. “You feel very comfortable as a coach with the ball in her hands in the big moments.”

Stokes also had a big fourth quarter with four points, five rebounds, a block and a steal.

The Aces outscored the Mercury 28-17 in the quarter.

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

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