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Aces survive scare, stay perfect with road win against Atlanta

The Aces went on the road looking for a test. That’s exactly what they found in Atlanta.

After four games, the Aces had cruised to a perfect record. Their average margin of victory was just shy of 25 points per game. No one had even kept them close.

“We need to be pushed a little bit down the stretch,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “They pushed us.”

The Aces held on for a 92-87 win against the Atlanta Dream on Friday in front of a sellout crowd at the Gateway Center Arena at College Park.

Reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson had 21 points and five rebounds to lead the Aces (5-0). Fifth-year wing Jackie Young scored 20 points on 60 percent shooting, her fourth game with at least 20 points this season.

Center Cheyenne Parker led all scorers with 25 for the Dream (2-3). Wing Allisha Gray added 16 points, reigning rookie of the year Rhyne Howard scored 15, and guard AD Durr poured in 13 points off the bench for Atlanta.

The Aces remain the only undefeated team in the WNBA. They’ve scored at least 90 points in every game. Dating back to the 2022 campaign, the Aces have won nine consecutive regular-season games, a record since the team moved to Las Vegas and the second-longest streak in franchise history.

“We know we have a lot more growth and a lot more things we need to do,” Wilson said. “Yes, we’re grinding out wins, but we’re putting ourselves in positions we don’t need to.”

The Aces continue the road trip at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Indiana Fever.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s win:

1. Defensive collapse

Hammon has stressed defense since the start of the season. She wants to see her team put together a complete 40 minutes.

The reigning WNBA coach of the year got about half of that against Atlanta. The Aces held the Dream to 30 points on 30 percent shooting from the floor in the first 20 minutes.

However, the Aces’ defense capitulated in the second half. They allowed 57 points on 64.7 percent shooting, and the Dream also went 7 of 11 from 3. Hammon said stagnant offense led to transition opportunities for Atlanta, while Wilson said the Aces simply didn’t match the Dream’s physicality in the second half.

The Aces’ 15-point lead at halftime was eventually cut to two.

“We can’t be caught off-guard in these situations,” Wilson said.

2. Stokes steps up

Whenever Hammon needs to fortify her defense, she summons Kiah Stokes. The starting center during last year’s championship run returned to a reserve role this season, but continues to find ways to impact the game.

Stokes grabbed a team-best seven rebounds against Atlanta to go with four points. Her most important moment came with 20 seconds remaining when she blocked a 3 in the corner and then sank a free throw to give the Aces a five-point lead.

“We know exactly what we’re going to get out of Kiah,” Wilson said. “It helps us. We’re more comfortable knowing she’s the anchor.”

3. Gray closes out

Aces point guard Chelsea Gray didn’t have her greatest game against the Dream. The 2022 WNBA Finals MVP went 4 of 13 from the floor and didn’t make a 3. Gray had six turnovers against four assists, and her eight points tied her season low.

But with the Aces’ offense struggling late in the fourth quarter, Gray was trusted to score. Just like she did time and again during the 2022 playoffs, she delivered.

The ninth-year veteran scored six points in the fourth quarter, punctuated by her trademark turnaround jumper with 22 seconds left and the Aces’ lead down to two.

“Whenever she has the ball at the end of the game, we know she’s going to make the right read at the end of the day,” Young said. “She’s our point guard. We trust her.”

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

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