LAS VEGAS -- A'ja Wilson didn't want to say out loud that the Las Vegas Aces' backs were against the wall Sunday. But that was the unvarnished truth, and they knew it. What has been a fun second season for the franchise in Las Vegas could have ended with a sweep by the Washington Mystics in the WNBA semifinals.
"A lot of things were on the line for us," Wilson said.
The No. 4 seed Aces played that way, and it was their turn to show off their dynamic duo. Wilson and Liz Cambage combined for 49 points and 14 rebounds as the Aces beat the top-seeded Mystics 92-75 to breathe new life into their series.
The biggest reasons for the turnaround from two losses at Washington? Defense, for sure, which included winning the rebounding battle, 40-28. In the first two games, 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman carved up the Aces. But on Sunday, the Mystics looked too one-dimensional. Delle Donne had 22 points, and Meesseman, who had 57 points combined in the first two games, was 3-of-8 from the field for six points Sunday.
When asked what the Aces did differently, Cambage smiled and said, "Magicians never reveal their secrets." But then she acknowledged, "Washington is such a great offensive team, and we've been throwing things at them every game. But tonight, we finally found something that was working. We finally executed tonight."
Wilson had a lot to do with that, keeping Meesseman from getting as many good looks as she got in the first two games.
"It's all about pride and the heart," Wilson said. "I just had to say, 'She's going to get her looks, but if we can cut back on some of them, that will benefit us.'"
Delle Donne was the only Washington starter to score in double figures.
"We definitely felt a little stagnant," Delle Donne said. "We talk about having the ball move side to side. They're a big defense, and if you make them move, they're going to struggle on closeouts. And we were kind of keeping it on one side of the floor, trying to attack mismatches. I think we need to move it, move it and then attack. We've been great all season long because we've been fast and we've shared the ball. We've got to get to that."
Cambage (28 points, 6 rebounds) and Wilson (21 points, 8 rebounds) also were the one-two punch offensively that battered so many teams this season, their first playing together. They were a combined 20-of-29 from the field and 9-of-11 from the foul line. Wilson was rookie of the year last year, and adding Cambage in a trade with Dallas before this season created quite an inside combo for the Aces.
A very energetic fan base at Mandalay Bay Events Center didn't hurt, either. A week ago, the Aces had to move to the nearby Thomas & Mack Center for their second-round, single-elimination game against Chicago, and the crowd saw a miracle finish with Dearica Hamby's steal and desperation-heave 3-pointer. The fans seemed to bring all that excitement from last Sunday to this one.
"Their energy, them showing up and loving being a part of who we are, is huge," said Aces guard Kayla McBride, who had 18 points. "We feel like we have a big advantage when we're here, no matter who we're playing. They've carried us through a lot of games."
Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer talked before the game about how the Aces were still figuring themselves out as a team. That's something he thought the Mystics -- who have made the playoffs three years in a row and six of the past seven -- have an advantage with. Contrast that postseason experience with that of the Aces, who moved to Las Vegas for 2018 and didn't advance to the playoffs last year. Previously, they were the San Antonio Stars and had only one postseason appearance in their last five years in Texas.
"We played hard enough to win the first two games," Laimbeer said of this series. "Part of it is we still don't know each other as well as Washington does. They move, they pass to the right spot. They know what somebody else is going to do. We don't always know that.
"We're growing by leaps and bounds in these playoffs. My experience has been that you have to go through the playoffs to know more about yourself."
What the Aces know now for sure is this: They can defend at a high level against the Mystics, who scored 97 points in the opener and 103 in Game 2, a far cry from Sunday's 75. Washington shot just 38.6% from the field and looked frustrated much of the second half.
The Aces were the ones who looked more comfortable on offense, which included great looks for Wilson and Cambage.
"We're learning on the run right now; this is the furthest I've ever been in the WNBA playoffs," Cambage said. "We are a very young team, but that's not an excuse. We're not backing down."