Aces coach Bill Laimbeer insisted throughout training camp — amid lofty external expectations — that his team still needs to learn how to win games.
The three-time WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury have no such problem.
Even without Diana Taurasi.
The Aces led the Mercury for the better part of three quarters, but surrendered a 13-0 run early in the fourth and a 6-0 run late en route to an 86-84 loss Friday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
Las Vegas (1-1) had three chances to tie the game in the final seconds, but Kayla McBride missed a baseline jumper and A’ja Wilson missed two shots in the paint before time expired.
Wilson scored 11 points and has reached double figures in all 35 games of her career. But she shot 4 of 19 for the Aces, the preseason betting favorites to win the championship, whose starters combined to shoot 31 percent from the field.
“We didn’t execute. I made it very clear after the game — that’s why we lost the game. We didn’t execute on offense or defense,” Laimbeer said. “Our starting lineup, it happens, but execution should always be a constant, and we didn’t do it.”
Liz Cambage thrived as a reserve in her first game with Las Vegas, scoring 13 points in 14 minutes while helping the Aces build a nine-point lead early in the third quarter.
But the Mercury, sans Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer who is nursing a back injury, chipped away at the start of the fourth by turning turnovers into transition points and other stops into scores during their 13-0 spurt.
The Aces countered with baskets from McBride, Wilson and Kelsey Plum, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:57 to play. Phoenix’s Yvonne Turner then made a layup, and Essence Carson hit the decisive 3-pointer with 46 seconds remaining.
“We scored 80-plus points,” Laimbeer said. “We had a chance to win.”
McBride scored a team-high 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, the only starter to shoot 50 percent from the floor. Reserve forward Dearica Hamby had 10 points and six rebounds, and Plum scored 10.
Las Vegas bench players outscored Phoenix’s 38-2, but all five starters scored in double figures for the Mercury (1-1). Carson scored a game-high 20 points.
“I’m sad we didn’t get the win. We let that one slip away,” Cambage said. “There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s the start of something special.”