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Aces spoil Sue Bird’s send-off with victory in Seattle

Aces star A’ja Wilson wants to make it clear: She didn’t mean to crash Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird’s party.

“I mean, she invited me to the party,” Wilson said. “I was just trying to have some fun, lighten it up a little bit.”

Bird, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who will retire after the season, played her final regular-season game in Seattle on Sunday before a sellout crowd of 18,100 at Climate Pledge Arena. But Wilson and the Aces spoiled the guard’s send-off with an 89-81 victory.

“I’m not going to lie; it kind of sucks to lose my last game,” Bird said. “But, you know what, I lost my first game, too. So it’s OK.”

Wilson also thought it was OK.

“This is a big night for her,” she said. “I’m sure it’s going to continue to be a big night for her, and it’s all love, for sure.”

Wilson had 29 points on 13-for-24 shooting. Aces guard Kelsey Plum scored 16, including a key 3-pointer late in the game, and wing Jackie Young and point guard Chelsea Gray added 15 apiece.

Seattle (20-13) got a game-high 35 points from star forward Breanna Stewart, who hit 10 of 18 shots, including 4 of 5 on 3-pointers. But fellow All-Star Jewell Loyd scored only one point and shot 0 of 6.

Bird, who is retiring after 19 WNBA seasons at age 41, had nine points and six assists.

“To be so good for so long,” said Aces coach Becky Hammon, an opponent of Bird’s in her first WNBA game on May 30, 2002. “A lot of people you have nine to 10 years of being amazing. She’s been amazing for decades.”

The victory snapped the Aces’ two-game losing streak. They haven’t lost more than two consecutive games this season.

The Aces (23-10) return to Michelob Ultra Arena on Tuesday for the first time since July 23, hosting the Atlanta Dream at 7 p.m.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s victory:

1. Aces change lineup

Hammon changed her starting lineup, bringing two-time sixth player of the year Dearica Hamby off the bench for the first time this season. Center Kiah Stokes replaced her in the lineup.

“That’s going to be our lineup going forward,” Hammon said. “It was just about putting Dearica in some better spots to help. She’s still going to play a lot of minutes because she’s such a great defender, but we just wanted to mix it up a little bit.”

Hamby has struggled since the All-Star break. She’s at her best running as part of the fast break, but the Aces’ defense hasn’t produced as many of those opportunities. Hamby has scored in double figures once since July 3 and is 1 of 23 on 3-pointers since the All-Star break.

“She was really great about it, a total pro,” Hammon said.

Stokes didn’t score, but grabbed a team-best nine rebounds. She also had a steal, a block and three assists in 28 minutes.

Hamby had six points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.

2. MVP front-runners clash

The day belonged to Bird, but fans also got to watch MVP front-runners Wilson, 26, and Stewart, 27, go head-to-head.

Wilson was in rhythm from the start, scoring 18 first-half points. No other Aces player had more than seven. She particularly shined in the midrange, hitting an array of turnaround jumpers against the vaunted Seattle defense.

“Every time someone comes to a game, I want to put on a show,” Wilson said. “This is my job. I love what I do.”

Stewart erupted in the second half for 21 points. When she couldn’t find an open look, she forced her way to the free-throw line, where she went 11 of 15.

“I always love competing against her,” Wilson said.

3. Aces stay composed

Wilson knew she needed a big performance. In the Aces’ previous game, an 82-80 loss to the Dallas Wings, she missed a wide-open, game-tying layup with less than five seconds remaining.

“It made my stomach hurt,” Wilson said. “I was sick.”

On Sunday, every time the Storm made a run, the Aces had an answer. Plum had the biggest one, hitting a 3 from the corner with 34 seconds left for an 88-79 lead.

Gray (nine) and Wilson (six) combined for 15 of the Aces’ 21 fourth-quarter points. Gray added nine assists, six rebounds and two steals for the game.

“You can’t get too high with your highs, and you can’t get too low with your lows,” Wilson said. “I think we really just honed in on doing what we do best and stayed within ourselves.”

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

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