August 14, 2022 - 2:22 pm
Updated August 14, 2022 - 5:26 pm
Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart was wide open for a layup.
With 1:08 remaining and the Aces leading by three points, Stewart charged down the lane, received the ball off an inbounds pass and elevated for a shot. But Aces forward A’ja Wilson seemingly came out of nowhere and charged in front of Stewart.
Wilson spiked Stewart’s attempt out of the air as the record crowd of 10,015 at Michelob Ultra Arena roared its approval. Aces point guard Chelsea Gray picked up the loose ball, led the fast break and found guard Kelsey Plum trailing the play for a 3-pointer.
The five-point swing helped the Aces shut the door on the Storm en route to a 109-100 victory Sunday in the regular-season finale that clinched the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage for the WNBA playoffs.
“Whenever we went through those lulls, (Wilson) stayed the same,” Gray said. “I think that’s what an MVP does.”
Gray scored a career-high 33 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds, and Wilson had 25 points and 10 rebounds. Plum added 23 points and four assists for the Aces, who have won four straight.
“That trust factor just continues to grow,” coach Becky Hammon said. “Once you get that, you can get something special.”
Sunday was Storm legend Sue Bird’s final regular-season game. The Aces honored Bird, who will retire after the season, with a ceremony and custom leather jacket before tipoff. She finished with six points and seven assists in 26 minutes.
The Aces (26-10) will host the No. 8 Phoenix Mercury (15-21) in Game 1 of their best-of-three first-round series at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Aces and defending champion Chicago Sky finished with the same record, but Las Vegas won the tiebreaker.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s game:
1. MVPs battle
Wilson and Stewart made their final pitches for the MVP award in front of NBA stars Chris Paul, Trae Young and Devin Booker,
Stewart, the 2018 MVP and the league’s leading scorer this season at 21.4 points per game, had 21 points in 36 minutes on 9-of-21 shooting. She also had 15 rebounds and four assists but struggled from 3, hitting 1 of 5.
Wilson, the 2020 MVP, found her rhythm early. She scored 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and the massive block on Stewart.
“She’s doing it all, and she knows we need her to do it all,” Gray said.
2. Gray the closer
After the Storm (22-14) clawed their way back into the game — in large part because of guard Jewell Loyd, who scored 38 points — the Aces turned to Gray’s steady hand.
“When the head of your snake is composed like that, it just trickles down to the rest of the team,” Wilson said.
Gray has been the Aces’ most consistent performer in close games, and she showed up again Sunday, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter. She also finished 11 of 11 from the free-throw line.
“She is a big part to us, as a team and as a franchise,” Wilson said.
3. Williams finds form
Reserve guard Riquna Williams has given the Aces a boost with her recent play.
Williams had 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes, her second consecutive game in double-figure scoring. Hammon said she has been most impressed with Williams’ defense.
“I need her to be that spark plug off the bench,” Hammon said.
Aces vs. Phoenix Mercury
Wednesday: Game 1, Michelob Ultra Arena, 7 p.m., ESPN
Saturday: Game 2, Michelob Ultra Arena, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Aug. 23: Game 3, at Phoenix, time/TV TBA
All games broadcast on KWWN-FM (100.9) and KWWN-AM (1100)