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A’ja Wilson’s defense helps Aces hold off Indiana

A’ja Wilson only had one thought during the Aces’ last defensive possession of their 84-80 win Sunday against the Indiana Fever. Don’t foul.

The reigning MVP and her team had already fought back from a double-figure deficit to take a two-point lead. For the Fever’s final possession, guard Kelsey Mitchell called for a screen with less than 24 seconds remaining. The Aces switched, leaving Wilson on an island alone with Indiana’s leading scorer.

Mitchell drove right and was able to turn the corner on Wilson, but the reigning defensive player of the year stayed in pursuit. Her presence bothered Mitchell, whose layup bounced harmlessly off the backboard. The Aces grabbed the defensive rebound. A pair of free throws sealed the win.

“I didn’t want to put us in a situation where it’s an and-one or anything else,” Wilson said. “So I was just trying to protect the paint without fouling.”

Wilson’s defense helped the Aces secured a four-point victory against the Fever at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Wilson led all scorers with 27 and added 10 rebounds. Indiana native Jackie Young poured in 19 points, while point guard Chelsea Gray scored 17 and assisted seven. The Aces closed the game on a 23-9 run.

Mitchell led Indiana with 22 points and was 5 of 6 from 3. Forward Aliyah Boston, the 2023 No. 1 overall pick, was held to seven points in 22 minutes after spending most of the first half in foul trouble.

At 6-0, the Aces remain the only undefeated team in the WNBA. Sunday was the first time coach Becky Hammon’s team has been held below 90 points in a regular-season game since Aug. 11, 2022 during an 89-78 win against the Chicago Sky.

“We’re not where we want to be yet,” Hammon said. “But we shouldn’t be. It’s a process of building great habits and our habits aren’t there yet, not for 40 minutes.”

Hammon admitted the Aces didn’t come out ready to play in the first quarter. She was particularly critical of the team’s defense, especially after its second-half collapse two days earlier against the Atlanta Dream.

The Fever (1-4) scored 28 points in the first quarter. Indiana shot 63.2 percent from the floor and was 4 of 6 from 3, despite entering Sunday as the least efficient 3-point shooting team in the league.

“The defense always has to be there,” Hammon said. “That’s what’s going to sustain you through those rough shooting nights.”

The Aces road trip continues at 4 p.m. Tuesday when they play the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Here are two takeaways from the Aces win against the Fever:

1. Aces struggles from 3

For the second consecutive game, the Aces shot below 30 percent from 3. Hammon’s squad was just 4 of 21 — 19 percent — from beyond the arc against the Fever after shooting 6 of 21 from 3 against the Dream during the first game of the road trip.

Gray, who was 2 of 5 from deep, was the only Aces player to make multiple 3s in the game. First team All-WNBA guard Kelsey Plum was 0 of 6. She’s 0 of 9 from 3 in the past two games. It’s been an uncharacteristic stretch for the Aces, who entered the game second in the league in 3-point efficiency.

2. Fourth quarter execution

Hammon wasn’t happy with the Aces late-game execution against the Dream Friday. She said the team let some of their offensive frustrations impact their play.

Against the Fever, the Aces coach said they handled the pressure much better. She praised the team for locking into the defensive scheme and limiting turnovers on offense. Gray had seven points and Young scored six, including the go-ahead layup with a minute left off a Gray pass from a baseline out-of-bounds play.

“It was a little growth on our part, for sure, and maturity,” Hammon said. “That’s nice for me to see as a coach, that when things get tight and pressure filled, we can execute.”

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

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