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‘Can’t crack this group’: Aces’ 2023 title demanded more on, off court

The Aces and coach Becky Hammon had a simple mantra, two words that epitomized the team’s attitude toward everything that might have derailed its season.

“Keep playing,” Hammon said. “Next play, keep playing. Offensively, keep playing. Defensively, keep playing. This is a testament that your character, it will be like your culture. If you have bad character, you’ll have bad culture.

“And we had plenty of times to fall apart, but because of their character and the culture we’ve built, you can’t crack this group.”

The Aces are the 2023 WNBA champions. They’re the first team to win back-to-back titles since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks. They played three more games this season than they did during their first championship march less than a year ago, but lost five fewer games.

Yet this season and this championship — which Hammon said was “sweeter” — demanded more of the Aces on and off the court than their first title.

“We’ve been through some stuff this year, man,” Finals MVP A’ja Wilson said.

Regular season

The season’s tribulations began long before tipoff of the opening game.

The reigning champions underwent a roster makeover during the offseason. Longtime stalwart Dearica Hamby was controversially traded to the Sparks, while two-time league MVP Candace Parker and two-time champion Alysha Clark joined in free agency.

Across the country, the New York Liberty added two former league MVPs — Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones — and perennial All-Star Courtney Vandersloot to a team that already included Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney, with the clear intention of dethroning the Aces.

Then, just before the start of the season, the league suspended Hammon for the first two games as part of its investigation into Hamby’s allegations of being discriminated against for being pregnant and potential salary cap circumvention by the Aces.

Hammon returned for the championship ring and banner ceremony, and the Aces quickly began to look like a juggernaut. Parker’s integration went smoothly, and the Aces ran over almost every team in their path.

However, the team announced a shock on July 25. Parker, who had missed a few games, was out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on her left foot for a fracture she’d been playing on the entire season.

All of a sudden, the piece that made the Aces a super team was gone. Center Kiah Stokes was promoted back into the starting lineup in Parker’s place.

“All we did was buckle down and keep playing,” Hammon said.

Parker’s absence was exacerbated by reserve guard Riquna Williams’ legal troubles, which emerged a day later when she was arrested in connection with a domestic violence investigation. Those charges were eventually dropped, but the team announced Williams was not going to return in early September.

Instead, the Aces’ stars stepped up. Kelsey Plum had the most efficient 40-point game in WNBA history on July 9. Chelsea Gray recorded the second triple-double in franchise history during a win against the Liberty on Aug. 17.

Wilson tied the league’s single-game scoring record by dropping 53 points on the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 22.

But the Aces were in the middle of a difficult 11-game stretch played out over 23 days beginning Aug. 6. They faced the Liberty four times during that span, losing three.

The Aces also failed to defend their Commissioner’s Cup title, but were still able to enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, edging out the Liberty by two wins. A franchise-record 17,406 fans watched the regular-season finale on Sept. 10 at T-Mobile Arena, and the Aces led the WNBA in attendance this season.

Playoffs

The Aces hosted the first game of the playoffs at T-Mobile Arena, too. A team playoff-record 12,927 turned out to see the Aces beat the No. 8 seed Chicago Sky 87-59. They breezed past the Sky 2-0 in the first round, then swept the No. 4 Dallas Wings 3-0 in the semifinals, setting up a date in the Finals with the Liberty in what was expected to be one of the most closely contested championships the league had ever seen.

However, the Aces proceeded to blow out the Liberty in the first two games at Michelob Ultra Arena. Jackie Young poured in 26 points in Game 1, then added 24 as the Aces routed New York 104-76 in Game 2. The series seemed all but done as it shifted back to Barclays Center.

Game 3, however, was a complete disaster for the Aces. Gray departed with a foot injury, and she and Stokes were eventually ruled out for Game 4.

But the Aces buckled down once again. A gritty performance spearheaded by Wilson, Plum, Young and Clark, the Sixth Player of the Year, ended when Vandersloot air-balled New York’s game-winning shot attempt as time expired, securing a 70-69 Aces win and the 2023 WNBA championship.

“We never gave up,” Wilson said. “This is a moment we need to celebrate. This is a moment that not a lot of people get a chance to do.”

Added Hammon: “I know exactly who’s in that locker room. I know exactly who I’m going to war with every day. This is probably the tightest group I’ve ever been around. They’re a special group. I don’t know what else you could throw at them.”

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

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