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Lineup change pays off for Aces against Phoenix Mercury

Aces coach Becky Hammon was looking to mix things up. With four games to play and her team coming off a two-point loss to the Dallas Wings, she altered her starting lineup, introducing center Kiah Stokes for All-Star Dearica Hamby.

“She’s just such a big presence,” Hammon said.

The Aces haven’t lost since the lineup change. They’ve won five consecutive games, including victories against the Seattle Storm and the reigning champion Chicago Sky. Wednesday, the No. 1 Aces defeated the No. 8 Phoenix Mercury 79-63 at Michelob Ultra Arena with Stokes patrolling the paint. She had eight points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in almost 31 minutes.

“They just wanted me to do what I do best,” Stokes said. “They wanted me to be a presence on defense, alter shots, box out, rebound and be a solid foundation defensively.”

The Aces can advance to the WNBA semifinals with a win in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Mercury at 6 p.m. Saturday at Michelob Ultra Arena.

Stokes’ elevation into the Aces starting lineup has been a gradual rise. The former Connecticut center started to carve out a role for herself after the All-Star break. Hammon began relying on her for matchups against stronger post players.

The Aces’ center believes the July 26 Commissioner’s Cup final against the Sky was the turning point in her season. Stokes played 17 minutes off the bench to help the Aces win 93-83. She felt like it was the first time Hammon trusted her to anchor the defense.

“It feels good when you have a coach who believes in you like that,” Stokes said.

The seventh-year center has made the transition from reserve to starter look easy, but other Aces players know there are many challenges to role changes, particularly late in the season.

Veteran guard Riquna Williams said the rhythms of a bench player versus a starter are completely different. Additionally, Williams said Stokes had to quickly develop chemistry with the rest of the starters, who had been playing together all season.

Stokes’ approach hasn’t changed much, despite the new role. She goes into every game focusing on her communication, making the right plays and being in the correct spots no matter who’s playing with her.

All-Star A’ja Wilson and Stokes have already developed a good relationship . With Stokes controlling the paint, Wilson is allowed to roam the court as a help defender, utilizing her athleticism. Their partnership in the low post reminds Stokes of her time playing alongside Storm forward Breanna Stewart at UConn.

As the Aces try to advance to the next round, Stokes has cemented herself as a key role player in their pursuit of a championship.

“Whether I play two minutes or 30 minutes, whenever I’m on the court I want to make sure I’m doing my job,” Stokes said.

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

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