A’ja Wilson says there’s a different energy around the Aces this year.
A different vibe.
A different feel.
Prompting a much different start to their second season in Las Vegas.
The Aces coasted Sunday night to an 83-70 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks at Mandalay Bay Events Center. Wilson had a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, Kayla McBride scored 20 and Dearica Hamby came off the bench to log 12 points and 14 rebounds for the Aces, who lost their opener last year by 36 points.
“This was a great way to open up our season,” Wilson said. “We know there are a lot of expectations (for) us but we just really stuck to our game plan and stuck to our systems. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
A raucous announced crowd of 7,249 — including retired Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant — watched the Aces embark in the first half on an 18-2 run and roll to a 45-31 halftime lead.
Coach Bill Laimbeer was confident in his team’s offensive capabilities throughout training camp, and approved of its first defensive effort of the season.
“We’re going to score points, and last year we lost games on defense,” he said. “We’re not going to be the greatest defensive team … but as long as they make a commitment to it and play as hard as they can on defense and trust each other and play solid team defense, we’re going to outscore other teams.”
The Aces resumed their defensive intensity in the second half and extended their lead at one point to 19. Los Angeles center Maria Vadeeva scored 24 and forward Nneka Ogwumike scored 17, but no other player had more than six points for the Sparks, who were without injured all-star forward Candace Parker while she nurses a hamstring injury.
Las Vegas center Liz Cambage is recovering from Achilles tendinitis and also sat out for precautionary reasons. But she cheered rambunctiously for her new teammates from the sideline throughout the course of the game.
Aces guard Kelsey Plum had 11 points and six assists and rookie Jackie Young scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting in her WNBA debut.
“Our players needed to put on a show and show the fans what they were about, and they did,” Laimbeer said. “I think our players were ecstatic of how this all turned out today.”
The Aces left the court to an ovation and returned to the locker room to meet Bryant and his daughter’s club basketball team. He exchanged pleasantries with the players and posed for photos, too.
Wilson and McBride said it was a great experience.
And a heck of a way to cap their first win of the season.
“It’s just cool that he appreciates the women’s game,” McBride said. “He’s done so much for the game of basketball, including myself. It was an honor to meet him and obviously he’s passing his knowledge down to his daughter, and stuff like that. … It was a cool experience. It was something I’ll remember forever. For sure.”