UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Nearly a year ago, the Las Vegas Aces suffered a season-ending loss that burned within them throughout the winter months all the way into this season. But that feeling was eclipsed Sunday, as the Aces beat the Connecticut Sun 78-71 in Game 4 and won the WNBA Finals 3-1, giving the city of Las Vegas its first major professional sports championship.
"We didn't like that feeling we had last year," said Aces guard Chelsea Gray, who was named Finals MVP. "It was a tough moment, but it built character. It was setting something up for the following year."
It is also a first for the Aces franchise, which started as the Utah Starzz in 1997, when the WNBA made its debut as a league. The team moved to San Antonio in 2003 and appeared in the WNBA Finals in 2008, getting swept. Becky Hammon was a player for San Antonio then; she is head coach for Las Vegas now. As the Aces, the franchise appeared in the 2020 WNBA Finals and was swept again. But under Hammon, the Finals ending changed this time.
Hammon, 45, is the first person in WNBA history to win a title in her first season as a head coach. Van Chancellor won the inaugural WNBA championship in 1997, when all the coaches were in their first seasons with their teams, but he had been a college and high school head coach for more than 30 years before that.
Five NBA rookie head coaches in the past 60 years have won that league's title. The most recent was Nick Nurse with Toronto in 2019, although he also had been a head coach for several years previously at other levels of basketball.
Hammon was an assistant to Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs for eight seasons before Aces owner Mark Davis hired her last December to take over the WNBA team. She finished out the season with the Spurs in April, then immediately joined the Aces, who had a preseason game May 1 and their opener May 6.
The Aces tied for the league's best regular-season record at 26-10 and got the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. They also won the in-season Commissioner's Cup trophy, and A'ja Wilson was the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-WNBA performer, along with Aces guard Kelsey Plum. Hammon was Coach of the Year and Aces guard Jackie Young was Most Improved Player of the Year.
All of the awards would have felt a little hollow for this team, though, without a championship. Led by Gray with 20 points and six assists, reserve Riquna Williams with a season-high 17 points and Wilson with 11 points and 14 rebounds, the Aces closed out the series in front of a loud crowd cheering on the Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas had 11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for her second consecutive triple-double in the WNBA Finals, but it wasn't quite enough as the Sun lost in the Finals for the fourth time in franchise history.
The Aces franchise moved to Las Vegas in 2018, the same year Wilson was the No. 1 draft pick out of South Carolina. The team already had the No. 1 pick from 2017 with Plum, who is NCAA women's basketball's all-time scoring leader, out of Washington. The Aces added another No. 1 pick in Young, out of Notre Dame, in 2019.
The Aces made the WNBA Finals in 2020, when the season was played in a COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida. Seattle swept Las Vegas then. Plum missed that season with an Achilles injury, but she returned in 2021, when the Aces were joined by free-agent point guard Gray. Between five-on-five (Wilson, Gray) and three-on-three (Plum, Young), the Aces had four gold-medal winners in the Tokyo Olympics last year.
But the decisive Game 5 loss in the semifinals at home to Phoenix last October--- which came on Gray's 29th birthday -- was crushing for the team. Wilson said it was probably the most painful loss of her career. Gray said that she kept playing over and over in her head a costly late turnover in the three-point defeat.
Coach Bill Laimbeer retired, center Liz Cambage left as a free agent for Los Angeles and Hammon came in, as did another former WNBA player, Natalie Williams, as general manager. Without Cambage, who averaged 14.2 PPG and 8.2 RPG, Hammon opened up the Aces' offensive approach, pushing them to take many more 3-pointers. The Aces went from 162-of-432 from behind the arc last season to 343-of-951 this season.
That included Wilson, who had made just one 3-pointer her first four seasons in the league, but made 31 this regular season. Wilson now has a WNBA title, two MVP awards and an Olympic gold medal all by age 26, which she turned in August.
"And really, she's just now entering her prime years," Hammon said. "Think about the learning curve, even just this year. She learned some things entirely new, defensively and offensively. For her to excel like this, I'm excited about the upcoming years because of the foundation she's put in. Her game is going to continue to expand. I really don't know how good she can be, but she's already here ... I wouldn't put a cap on her."
Laimbeer was in attendance at Sunday's game as was Davis, who bought the Aces from MGM Resorts International in January 2021. Davis, who also owns the Las Vegas Raiders, wanted to link the Aces to their entire history in San Antonio and Utah, so he brought for alumni from those teams in to visit Las Vegas. One of them was Hammon, whose No. 25 worn with San Antonio was retired by the Aces.
Much was made of Davis' decision to pay Hammon an estimated $1 million salary to coach, but the owner was all smiles outside the Aces' locker room Sunday.
"She's been absolutely unbelievable, and I guess this legitimizes the way we went after her," said Davis, who mentioned that the last championship he was part of was when the Raiders won the Super Bowl in January 1984. "I can't wait to see what these rings are going to look like."
The Aces' victory also makes for an even greater year in women's basketball for South Carolina fans, who still cheer on Gamecocks program legend Wilson. South Carolina beat Connecticut in April for the NCAA women's title behind Aliyah Boston, who is expected to be the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2023.
Boston had suffered a heartbreaking end to her 2021 NCAA tournament with a loss in the semifinals to Stanford, but then came back to win a title the next year. It's a similar story in the WNBA for Wilson, who is expected to soon join the United States team in Australia for the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup.
"I've felt like Vegas set the standard in the league for how a franchise should be," Wilson said. "When you have an owner like Mark who is so dialed in ... the sky's the limit for this franchise."
And with all their key players, including Dearica Hamby, back for next season, the Aces have a chance to be the first WNBA team to repeat as champion since the Los Angeles Sparks did that in 2001-02.
"It's a commitment to wanting to keep a group together," said Gray, who also won a title with Los Angeles in 2016. "You think about the teams in the past who kept a core group together, like Minnesota or Phoenix or Seattle, it's a commitment to excellence and wanting to leave a legacy.
"I think especially with a first-year head coach, our bond got even a little tighter and stronger. For the organization to understand what it takes to not just do it one year, but try to do it multiple years, that's when you're talking about a more legendary franchise. Hopefully, that's what we can be."