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Wilson motivated as Aces meet Liberty for 1st time since WNBA Finals

If it looks like A’ja Wilson is playing with a chip on her shoulder this season, that’s because she absolutely is.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year recorded 32 points Thursday in a win over the Phoenix Mercury, giving her the most consecutive 25-point games in WNBA regular-season history (eight). She leads the league in points (28.6) and rebounds (11.7) per game.

It’s the norm for Wilson, who seems to step off the court with a new piece of franchise and WNBA history after every appearance she makes for the back-to-back champions this season.

“You see her putting up big numbers, and it’s not a surprise to me because I know the type of player she is,” New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart said Friday.

On Saturday, when the Aces (6-5) host the Liberty (11-2) at noon at Michelob Ultra Arena in the teams’ first meeting since the 2023 WNBA Finals, the superstar Aces forward will be reminded of one of her largest motivating factors.

Last season, Wilson placed third in one of the WNBA’s closest MVP races of all time. The award, which is voted on by 60 media members, went to Stewart. Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun came in second.

Wilson, who won the MVP in 2020 and 2022, received 17 first-place votes — just 13 points behind Stewart. But Wilson also received a fourth-place vote, which she credits for some of her edge this season.

“I’m always gonna laugh at it because life is too short,” Wilson said Friday. “But at the end of the day, it still is in the back of my mind. There’s people out there that are still like, ‘We don’t think you deserve it.’ And that right there is everything that I need. That right there is the chip on the shoulder.”

Wilson added that she could get “all the banners and the rings in the world,” but knowing that there’s someone who’s not impressed will keep her going.

“That’s my grind. That’s my thing,” she said. “I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s work for it.’ So I hope my teammates feel that from me, and then we go out there and we play our basketball.”

Never a ‘Superteam’

The Aces and Liberty, deemed the league’s “superteams” before last season, faced off plenty of times before the Finals.

The each went 2-2, winning their respective home games. The teams also matched up a fifth time for the Commissioner’s Cup final in August, an 82-63 victory for the Liberty. It was the Aces’ first home loss in a season that saw the team set a new WNBA record for wins in a season (34).

Last season, the Liberty boasted recent acquisitions in Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot to combine with Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu. The Aces were newly enriched by the addition of Candace Parker, who only appeared in one game against the Liberty out of her 18 appearances in 2023 as she dealt with a foot injury that contributed to her recent retirement.

Built through draft

The Aces generally rejected the “superteam” title when asked about it last season. The team’s core was built through the selection of three consecutive No. 1 overall picks — Kelsey Plum, Wilson and Jackie Young — and the free agency signing of Chelsea Gray.

This year, there hasn’t been much use of “superteam” in reference to the Aces. Parker is retired, the Aces are working with a rookie and three other new signings (Kate Martin, Megan Gustafson, Tiffany Hayes and Emma Cannon), and Gray has yet to play this season, though she seems to be nearing a return.

With the change in personnel, the Aces have struggled at times this season, going on a three-game losing skid that they snapped against the Mercury, narrowly avoiding falling below .500.

“Now, hopefully people can look and see that we’re not a superteam. We’ve never been a superteam,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things where we’re like, ‘We told you so.’ We just have great players that put the work in and we’ve been putting the work in for a long time together. But when it comes to loading teams and ring chasing and all that, that’s never been us.”

Liberty rolling

For the Liberty, the roster hasn’t changed much, and the team has a chance to win the Commissioner’s Cup title again on June 25 against the Minnesota Lynx in New York.

The Aces were eliminated from the tournament after going 2-3 against Western Conference opponents. They will meet a rested Liberty, who began the season with four straight victories before losing two games. New York has yet to drop a game since, most recently defeating the Washington Mystics on Sunday.

When asked if her approach to the matchup would change much from last year, Stewart answered “yes and no.”

The team is a “little different,” she explained, adding that she’ll still have to guard Wilson no matter where she is on the court.

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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