LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson is coming for the Finals MVP.
The newly crowned league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year did everything for the No. 1-seeded Las Vegas Aces to push her team to a 67-64 win over the No. 3 Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in front of a record 10,135 fans at Michelob ULTRA Arena on Sunday afternoon. Game 2 is 9 p.m. ET Tuesday in Las Vegas.
It was the first career Finals win for Wilson and the Aces players who remain from the 2020 team that were swept by the Seattle Storm in the bubble.
"It was a game we needed. It was a game we needed not necessarily because, oh, it's our first win," Wilson said. "It's because it's something that this is huge for us. These are statement games in a way, and when you are playing a good team like Conn, you have to really lock in at all costs."
Wilson, buoyed by a frenetic fan base that chanted “MVP” during her free-throw attempts, scored 24 points and added 11 rebounds in a highly competitive game. The Aces needed every one of her points, too, as outside of Chelsea Gray, the team struggled to get going.
Gray had 21 points and three assists. Jackie Young added 11 points. While her stat line may not have popped out, Dearica Hamby's impact on the court was felt — and needed. She has battled a right knee bone contusion and played sparingly in the semifinals. Her 11 minutes in Game 1 of the Finals gave the Aces another dimension.
"That's a pro, first of all, but just being ready to go and it's a mentality. Her mentality is more of a physical mentality. That's what we needed, so that's what we told them," Aces coach Becky Hammon said of Hamby.
How the Aces won Game 1
The Aces built a 12-point lead in the first half before the Sun swung momentum in their favor. The Sun’s physical play stagnated the Aces’ offense and ball movement in the second quarter. Las Vegas did not have an assist in the second quarter and only eight for the game.
This was exactly the kind of basketball that the Sun wanted to play. And it’s what presented the most matchup problems for the Aces.
Connecticut settled in during the second period, disrupting Las Vegas’ offensive flow and making it “sludgey” as Hammon termed it pregame.
"Give credit to their defense and give credit to us missing. I thought it was a little bit of both," Hammon said postgame. "But that's a tough team. This is where they like the score to be, and we'll go back, look at the film and make some adjustments."
The Sun pestered the Aces with deflections, and their swarming defense held the Aces to just nine points in the second quarter as the Sun took a 38-34 lead into halftime. Sixth Player of the Year Brionna Jones came up big in the first half for the Sun, scoring 10 of her 12 points before halftime.
The Aces made the necessary adjustments after a halftime speech from Hammon that she called "lit." From there, the Aces chipped away and never trailed in the fourth quarter.
"I was lit. Because everything we had talked about, we didn't do any of it. And true to form, they just step up and do it then," Hammon said. "... When you go out there and you don't execute it, it's frustrating. But at the end of the day, they know it. They are smart. They get it. But they had beat us in every hustle category, and that can't happen. You can't lose a championship or a game or a quarter on hustle. That can never be the case."
The Aces built an eight-point lead with 2:40 remaining in the game before Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas scored six points, four off Las Vegas turnovers. Thomas finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
The Sun got a final chance to tie the game and send it to overtime, but DeWanna Bonner's off-leg triple was off.
What to look for in Game 2
Las Vegas guard Kelsey Plum struggled, missing her first eight shots before a 3-pointer with 4:30 to go. Plum averaged 20.2 points per game in the regular season and was held to just six in Game 1. Wilson and Gray scored 45 of the Aces' 67 points.
The Aces shot just 39.7% from the field, off their 48.3% for the season. They averaged 88.7 ppg this season, leading the league. The Sun like to muck things up and keep scoring low. They did just that and nearly stole Game 1 on the road.
The Aces will need their high-powered offense to be clicking in Game 2. The Sun's style presents numerous problems for the Aces, and it showed Sunday.
Connecticut, meanwhile, would love for Game 2 to look much like its defense and "muck" of the second period in Game 1. However, the Sun also need to find a better offensive rhythm and sustain it for longer periods.
"The second quarter was huge for us, but we left some points out there," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "There was moments where I thought we had some really good offensive possessions and missed some shots we are capable of making, to really try to create some separation going into halftime, and it didn't happen."
WNBA Finals schedule
Game 1: Las Vegas 67, Connecticut 64 (Aces lead, 1-0)
* — if necessary