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Aces throttle Los Angeles Sparks in home opener

Updated May 22, 2021 - 5:06 am

Reigning MVP A’ja Wilson walked to center court inside Michelob Ultra Arena on Friday night with a smile, a microphone in her hand and a message for the first home crowd in 605 days. Thank you, she said, for all the support.

“Let’s play some basketball.”

The Aces (2-1) rolled to a 97-69 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in their first home game since Sept. 24, 2019, giving the announced crowd of 1,972 plenty to cheer about.

Chelsea Gray ran the show in her first home game with the franchise, posting a team-high 18 points to go with six assists. Wilson was in MVP form, finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Coach Bill Laimbeer said Thursday that he didn’t expect the crowd to play much of a factor, but Wilson seemed to disagree after the victory.

“When we ran out, I really had no choice but to just smile. I really missed it. I missed everything about it. We missed everything about it,” Wilson said. “To have the home crowd behind us, it’s a big, big impact. Just to hear the cheers and the chants, it’s something we missed a lot in the bubble.”

The fans on hand were spaced throughout the 12,000-seat venue in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. But they were enthusiastic, cheering throughout the blowout.

They cheered when Wilson and teammate Liz Cambage stonewalled opposing ballhandlers at the rim, combining for five of the Aces’ 12 blocks. They cheered when Gray dropped dimes in transition. And when she buried off-the-dribble, pull-up jumpers against her former team.

They also cheered for rookie guard Destiny Slocum, who made her WNBA debut and finished with six points and four assists in 15 minutes. And they cheered for Jackie Young, who continued the torrid start to her third season with 17 points and disruptive perimeter defense.

“The fans play a key role,” Young said. “It’s fun playing in front of them, having friends and family out there.”

The Aces actually fell behind early in the first quarter before turning the game with a cohesive defense effort. Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike scored a team-high 19 points, but Los Angeles (0-2) shot 36.5 percent against a unit that communicated through pick-and-roll defense, helped and recovered on time.

Laimbeer reaffirmed that the Aces are still a work in progress but noted that they may be ahead of schedule. They return to Michelob Ultra Arena on Sunday for a 3 p.m. clash against the Connecticut Sun.

“We’re learning about each other. We’re making good progress, though. I’ll say that,” he said. “It’s only game three, but I think our potential is showing.”

Dearica Hamby added 17 points for the Aces.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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