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Historic first half sets tone as Aces defeat Liberty

For most of the season, and especially as the Aces limped into the All-Star break, the third quarter has been their nemesis.

Against the New York Liberty on Thursday, just two days after being outscored 35-19 in the third quarter by the same opponent, the Aces and Liberty played to a 21-21 tie. It was just the sort of improvement they needed.

“Normally, we get cooked,” All-Star forward A’ja Wilson said.

The Aces beat the Liberty 108-74 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They scored a league-record 71 points in the first half and played well enough in the second to ensure their historic start wasn’t wasted.

Wilson led the way with 25 points and set the tone on defense with three steals and two blocks. All-Star Kelsey Plum scored 21 points on 66.7 percent shooting. Veteran point guard Chelsea Gray added 16 points and seven assists while missing just one shot from the field.

The Aces (17-7) also became the first team in WNBA history to cross the 100-point threshold in three consecutive games. It’s their first win by at least 10 points since June 11.

“At the end of the day, we just really locked in,” Wilson said.

With two wins secured in New York, the Aces will continue their road trip at 10 a.m. Sunday against the Connecticut Sun.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

1. Historic first half

The Aces’ offense flowed right from the start. They went on a 12-0 run to open the game, propelled by five quick points from Gray. Wilson and Plum pitched in, too, with the three players outscoring the Liberty by themselves in the first half, 53-36. The Aces’ largest lead of the first half was 35 points.

As a team, the Aces shot 74.3 percent from the floor and went 12 of 16 from 3 in the first half. They also moved the ball well, assisting on 21 of their 26 first-half field goals.

2. Containing Ionescu

It only took the Aces three tries, but they finally limited Liberty All-Star Sabrina Ionescu.

The former Oregon star had torched the Aces in their past two meetings. Ionescu had the highest-scoring triple-double in WNBA history against the Aces June 6. Two days ago, the Aces contained her for three quarters before she ignited in the fourth, finishing with 27 points.

Thursday, the Aces took Ionescu out of the game. She scored nine points on 1-of-8 shooting, with the majority of her points coming from the free-throw line. Gray said the team focused on pressuring the ball and locked in on pick-and-roll coverage, where the Liberty All-Star had been successful.

“We just wanted to make it difficult for her,” Gray said.

3. Active around the rim

Since returning from the All-Star break, the Aces have improved their rebounding, winning the rebounding margin in both games against the Liberty (9-15) this week. They grabbed 40 rebounds Thursday.

Those rebounds turned into eight extra shots, and the Aces scored seven second-chance points. Wilson said coach Becky Hammon emphasized rebounding recently, and their smaller lineups require guards to crash and forwards to box out opponents, something they did well Thursday.

“That’s going to be the difference between us winning something and losing,” Wilson said.

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

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