NEW YORK -- The Las Vegas Aces, dogpiling on top of one another at half court as the buzzer sounded to cement Wednesday's 70-69 Game 4 victory over the New York Liberty and the 2023 WNBA championship, had been there before.
But this title? The one where they became the WNBA's first repeat champions in over 20 years despite having a future Hall of Famer, last year's Finals MVP and a defensive anchor on the bench, on top of what was already a roller-coaster season off the court?
"This one's sweeter," coach Becky Hammon said after the Aces finished with a 3-1 edge in the Finals series. "It just is. It's harder to do."
Amid a season full of what they've referred to as adversity and distractions, the Aces joined the Houston Comets (1997-2000) and Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) as the only franchises to win multiple championships in a row.
"This is what it's all about, to have your name etched in history right now with other teams," Finals MVP A'ja Wilson said. "We never gave up, and this is a moment that we need to celebrate. This is a moment that not a lot of people get a chance to do it, and for us to do it shorthanded, it is truly amazing. It just makes winning that much better."
Barclays Center had been rocking like the early 2000s all week with large crowds and a slew of former Liberty greats and celebrities rolling through, but the arena turned into a Las Vegas celebration in the late hours of Wednesday. Aces owner Mark Davis was on hand to hoist the championship trophy. "M-V-P" chants rained from Aces faithful in the crowd as Wilson was named Finals MVP, all the sweeter after she did not win the regular-season honor. And amid some boos from remaining Liberty fans, reserve Sydney Colson grabbed the mic at the conclusion of the trophy presentation to proclaim, "Night night."
Las Vegas closed out its title run despite being without starting point guard Chelsea Gray and starting center Kiah Stokes, who both suffered foot injuries in Game 3. The Aces are the first team in WNBA history to win a playoff game without multiple starters from the previous game.
But the team saw their absences as simply the latest of the many obstacles they've had to overcome. Players have cited their chemistry and closeness as what allowed them to persevere -- and now do the improbable by defeating a tough New York team on its home floor without a defensive force in Stokes and their offensive conductor in Gray.
"We're professionals," Wilson said. "We're ready when our name is called, and we kept the main thing, the main thing. This s--- wasn't easy at all. A lot of people counted us out. A lot of people counted us out from jump ... that just fueled us."
"This is a testament that your character, it will be like your culture," Hammon added. "And if you have bad character, you don't have that culture. And we had plenty of time to fall apart. But because of their character and the culture we built, you can't crack this group. You just can't."
Stick together they did: With Alysha Clark and Cayla George (in her first playoff start) taking Gray's and Stokes' places in the starting lineup, and Colson seeing an extended run, the Aces overcame a 12-point deficit to storm ahead by two going into the final frame. Despite a late New York rally in which the Liberty tied the game multiple times and then pulled within one with 41.7 seconds remaining, Las Vegas never trailed in the fourth quarter. The Aces sealed their championship with a defensive stop on the last play following a Courtney Vandersloot miss.
The Aces are the second team in WNBA history to clinch a title with a one-point win, joining the 2016 Sparks, who beat the Minnesota Lynx 77-76 in Game 5.
Wilson paced the Aces with 24 points and 16 rebounds, her Finals MVP the latest in a constantly growing collection of trophies and accolades that already included last season's title, a national championship at South Carolina, gold medals with Team USA at the World Cup and Olympics, and two league MVP awards. She became the first player in WNBA history with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a Finals-clinching win.
Jackie Young added 16 points and seven assists.
New York fell to 2-10 all time in the WNBA Finals and is still searching for its first championship. Teams that fall to 0-2 in the best-of-five series are 0-18 all time in those series, including 0-9 in the Finals.
"Credit to Vegas -- they were down and they found a way," Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. "We fought, but it wasn't our best game today. ... We've got to learn from it and take it as a learning experience now and as we move forward, and remember how it feels and use it as motivation."
Coming off their 2022 championship, the Aces were considered favorites to repeat, leading the league in offensive rating (113.0, the best in league history) and defensive rating (97.7) during the regular season on their way to securing the No. 1 overall seed with a 34-6 record. If anyone were to get in their way, though, it was the Liberty, a so-called superteam that acquired Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Vandersloot in the offseason. Two of the Aces' regular-season losses were to the Liberty, who also beat them in the Commissioner's Cup championship game.
But in the postseason, Las Vegas played some of its best basketball and solidified its status as one of the greatest teams in WNBA history. The Aces dropped just one game in the playoffs, to the Liberty in Game 3, and defeated New York by a combined 45 points across their first two wins of the series, setting them up for Wednesday's victory.
Becky Hammon, who was hired ahead of the 2022 campaign, now has won a WNBA title in each of her first two seasons as a head coach. The only other coaches who have done that in the WNBA or NBA are Van Chancellor (who led the Houston Comets to the WNBA's first four championships) and John Kundla of the Minneapolis Lakers (1948-49 and 1949-50).
After winning the franchise's first championship last season in four games over the Connecticut Sun, the Aces shored up their talent in the offseason by bringing in two-time league MVP Candace Parker in free agency, as well as the veteran Clark. But their 2023 campaign wasn't all smooth sailing.
They lost Parker for the season before the All-Star break to a left foot injury (with Wednesday's victory, she is the only player in WNBA history to win a title with three different teams: Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas).
They also have been without key reserve Riquna Williams, who was injured earlier in the year and has been barred from the team since her July arrest, although the domestic-violence-related charges were later dropped. And after the Aces traded former player Dearica Hamby to the Los Angeles Sparks in January, she accused Hammon and the organization of pregnancy discrimination and has since filed an EEOC complaint; the coach and franchise have refuted those claims, saying Hamby was traded purely because of business reasons.
On Wednesday, the Aces entered Game 4 without Gray, the 2022 Finals MVP, and Stokes, forcing Hammon to lean on George (30 minutes, 11 points) and Colson (14 minutes) despite previously using almost entirely a six-player rotation without them. Hammon said that when she called George before the game to tell her she was starting, the fourth-year player from Australia was lifting in the weight room with her husband.
"She's been a part of our fabric," Hammon said. "She stayed ready."
Clark added 10 points in 36 minutes.
"You guys have been waiting patiently in the wings locked in," Hammon told her reserves. "They don't know. They found out tonight."
As the Aces have etched their name in WNBA lore as repeat champions, there's bad news for the rest of the league: Las Vegas' core of Wilson, Plum, Young and Gray is under contract for 2024 and will look to run it back next year -- and the Aces are perhaps one step closer to becoming the league's next dynasty.
"We went from darling to villain real quick," Hammon said. "We had our names, our good names slandered. And all these women did was lock in together. And you ask why I'm so confident is because I know exactly who's in that locker room. ... This is probably the tightest group I've ever been around. And they're a special group. I don't know. I don't know what else you could throw at them."