A’ja Wilson and the Aces handle Sun, move a win away from WNBA title

LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson has been a star here throughout this week at the WNBA Finals. She has been featured on massive video boards on the Las Vegas Strip and been the focus of the media’s attention every day. Each quarter inside Michelob Ultra Arena, which sold out again Tuesday with an announced 10,211 — she has been serenaded with chants of “M-V-P!”

Wilson’s play during the regular season earned her the league’s most valuable player and defensive player of the year honors. Somehow, her postseason play has been even better.

Wilson led the Aces to an 85-71 win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 2 of the best-of-five finals, scoring 26 points to go with 10 rebounds and a block. The victory gave Las Vegas a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Game 3 is Thursday in Connecticut.

Wilson has scored 24-plus points and grabbed 10-plus rebounds in the past five playoff games.

“I felt like she’s been the most consistent player night in, night out offensively and defensively in this league and that’s why she’s MVP,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said. “It’s tremendous. A lot of times when we are watching greatness, we don’t appreciate it in live time. Like we have to wait until someone’s done playing. But it’s absolutely a treat for basketball people that are watching to see what she’s doing.”

A’ja Wilson already has a statue. Now she needs a ring.

Wilson set the tone from the outset. She scored eight of her team’s first 14 points and had 18 by halftime.

After the Aces were held to a season-low 67 points in Game 1, the No. 1 scoring team in the league wasn’t about to have repeat of that performance. Las Vegas attacked the paint with Wilson in the post or Plum driving to the basket.

And when possessions got ugly, point guard Chelsea Gray went into her bag of tricks with off-balance and fadeaway midrange jumpers. Gray was knocked down while making a three-pointer, a sequence that gave the Aces an 80-60 lead.

Plum bounced back from a six-point performance in Game 1 with 20 on Tuesday and Gray added 21. Aces Coach Becky Hammon said Plum getting downhill was the difference in the game.

“I told her she needed to get her s— together,” said Wilson, describing their discussion between Game 1 and Game 2. “At the end of the day, that’s what she needs to do. Make sure she understood that we need her to make shots, and I know it sounds harsh, but KP is a pro and she went out there and took care of business. I think she understands that we believe in her.

“I have ways that I talk to my teammates to get them to understand where I need to be and where we need to be. Yeah, I cussed her out.”

Plum said she has spoke to her psychologist about her game being off and have had several others trying to help her work through it. All of that paid off Thursday.

“A lot of times I’m hard on myself and I feel like I’ve been a little bit frustrated how I’ve performed throughout the whole playoffs,” Plum said. “I’m glad that they have been carrying it and I decided to join the party.”

The Sun simply didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep pace. Jonquel Jones, last season’s MVP, had her moments, but her 16 points couldn’t offset Wilson’s performance. Alyssa Thomas, who finished fourth in MVP voting, had a quiet 13 points, three rebounds and four assists. Courtney Williams poured in 18 points, but the Sun shot just 42.2 percent from the field compared to the Aces’ 51.6. The WNBA’s sixth player of the year Brionna Jones had 10 points and six rebounds.

The Sun never led after taking an early two-point lead in the first quarter and was outscored 46-28 in the paint.

Similar to Sunday’s series opener, the Aces came out fast, racing to a 23-15 lead after the first quarter. In Game 1, the Aces led 25-17.

Sun Coach Curt Miller had stressed the need to create better shots and that was the case early Tuesday as his team found some success sending cutters to the basket. But the Aces started to pick up their defensive intensity halfway through the quarter. That’s when the runs began. Las Vegas closed the quarter on a 9-1 stretch with pull-up jumpers from Gray and Riquana Williams and a three-pointer from the top of the arc from Jackie Young. That stretch was pushed to 13-1 into the second quarter to take a 12-point lead.

The Sun shot just 35 percent in that first quarter, but Jones got aggressive and Connecticut put together a pair of runs, including a 12-6 stretch to close the quarter and keep the score a manageable 45-37 at halftime.

Aces Coach Becky Hammon was critical of her team’s ball movement in Game 1, when Las Vegas produced just nine assists. The Aces had 11 by halftime Tuesday.

But Connecticut started the second half fast, using a 9-2 run to cut the lead to 49-46. That would be as close as the Sun would get.

“It starts on the defensive end, our defense sucks.” said Hammon of her message to the team after that stretch. “They went out and didn’t suck. It was them. They know what they are supposed to do, and it’s my job to remind them what they are supposed to be doing. And you know, at the end of the day, they have to go out and do it, and they do.

“I didn’t like offensively what we were doing. I thought it got real stagnant in that thing, so I wanted to just get the ball popping a bit more. It was kind of twofold.”

The Aces had a scary moment midway through the third quarter when Gray went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury. She was unable to get back on defense, but scored a jumper in the paint as the ball came back down. Gray checked out of the game afterward and headed to the locker room. At the three-minute mark of the quarter, Gray returned, still limping, and completed a three-point play after being fouled. The three points capped a 14-5 run in which Las Vegas grabbed control again and pushed the lead to 63-51.

“You can’t think big picture,” Miller said about approaching an elimination game. “That becomes overwhelming and daunting and feels, at times, bigger. It’s too big. So you’ve got to drill it down and we’ll get back to work with our preparation for Game 3. And all we talk about is Game 3, and in particular, all we are going to talk about is the first quarter, and that’s our approach.

“If you start thinking we have to win three in a row, we have to do those kind of things, it becomes big. So we are going to talk about Game 3 and Game 3 only and be ready for that first quarter.”

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