Liberty Lose Grasp of Game 4 as Aces Become Repeat WNBA Champions
In Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, down 70-69 with 20 seconds left, the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart blocked a potential layup attempt by A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces, giving New York one final chance to win the game. With 8.1 seconds to go and the season on the line, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello called a timeout to draw up a play that could potentially send the team to a deciding Game 5 of the Finals series.
Stewart got the ball off the inbounds and was immediately doubled and forced to pass to Betnijah Laney who then passed up a three to Courtney Vandersloot, which went wide and long as time expired. A rebound and putback attempt by Jonquel Jones occurred just a second late, sending the Aces running up the court in a frenzy to celebrate their second consecutive championship.
“It’s a play we’ve run before, get the ball to Stewie’s hand,” Brondello said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We got it where we wanted to, but didn’t make it.”
The Aces became the first team to repeat as WNBA champions since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001-02. Wilson, after finishing third in WNBA MVP voting, was named the Finals MVP after posting 24 points and 16 rebounds.
The Liberty, who were playing in their first Finals as a franchise since 2002, ended their historic season at Barclays Center in front of a crowd of more than 16,800.
This was the first close game between the two teams all season, most of them blowouts with the closest contest being a nine-point win by New York on Aug. 28.
The Aces were playing without two of their starters in Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes after they both sustained foot injuries in Game 3. This meant the Vegas bench, which has gotten limited minutes all season–especially in the playoffs–had to step up. Alysha Clark, the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, and Cayla George, who had gotten just seven minutes of playing time so far in the series, replaced Stokes and Gray as starters.
There was pressure on the Aces to close the series out, as no WNBA team has ever come back from down 0-2 in the Finals. The pressure was also on the Liberty to take advantage of their full starting lineup and defend home court.
Going into the game, Aces coach Becky Hammon said the team was planning on throwing some different defensive schemes and plays against the Liberty in hopes of disrupting their rhythm and confusing them offensively. At times, it worked.
“We’re going to be throwing the kitchen sink at ‘em, see what sticks,” Hammon said before Game 4. “We’re doing some stuff we’ve never done.”
While Gray, the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP, was sidelined, she still had an impact on the bench, consistently in the ears of her teammates and even helping Hammon to draw up plays.
Finding a Rhythm In the First Half
Neither team shot particularly well in the first quarter, both under 40%, but the Liberty were able to hit four threes, two of them from Vandersloot.
The Aces committed six first-quarter turnovers as they looked to figure out how to play as a group, and the Liberty were able to take advantage with 10 fastbreak points off misses and bad passes. New York went on a 12-2 run to end the quarter to lead by 10 and get the crowd at Barclays going as Wilson picked up two early fouls.
While Vandersloot struggled shooting in the series, she got off to a hot start with nine points while Laney added seven.
The Liberty held onto a nine-point lead going into halftime, yet the Aces had the upper hand in the paint, scoring 12 points to the Liberty’s four. The Aces were able to maneuver their way around the Liberty bigs for layups.
Third-Quarter Momentum Shift
Throughout the series, the third quarter of each game proved to be a momentum shifter, and that was no exception in Game 4. In the first two games in Las Vegas, the Aces outscored the Liberty 54-19 combined in the frame to give them comfortable leads in the second half. In Game 3 at Barclays, the Liberty outscored the Aces 18-10 to shift the game in New York’s favor.
The third quarter of Game 4 was no different, as Las Vegas outscored New York 23-12 to give the away team a two-point lead going into the fourth.
The Aces shot 50% from the field in the quarter, while the Liberty shot just 25%. The Aces continued their advantage in the paint and Wilson began to get going with nine points in the quarter after struggling from the field in Game 3. The shift in momentum was felt, quieting the Liberty crowd while giving the Aces more confidence to close out the game. The Aces’ defense threw up different defensive rotations, which made it difficult for the Liberty to find any offensive footing.
“I think they were throwing whatever defense they had at us and make sure it’s ugly,” Stewart said. “Sometimes we lost our flow and ball movement.”
Closing Out the Game
Neither team was able to get comfortable in the fourth, and even after the Aces extended their lead to 70-64 with 1:30 left, the Liberty got back into the game after a three from Vandersloot and a jump shot from Sabrina Ionescu. Yet the Aces’ hounding defense on the final play made the Liberty take all of the time left on the clock, giving them just a one-shot opportunity to force a Game 5.
“We’re disappointed,” Brondello said. “It’s tough to win a fourth. It would have been nice to go to Game 5 to lay it all on the table. Credit to Vegas. We fought, but it wasn’t our best game today. It’ll be a hard one to learn from, but I’m proud of this group.”
Key Stat Mismatches
While the Liberty were able to take advantage of the Aces’ miscues and misses with 17 fastbreak points, Las Vegas had the upper hand under the basket with 44 points in the paint compared to just 24 for the Liberty.
Jones, who has been one of the strongest players in the playoffs and this series for the Liberty, struggled to get going in Game 4 with six points. She was the only Liberty starter to attempt single-digit shots and was not fed down low or stretched the floor like she had in previous matchups.
The Liberty did a fairly good job of containing both Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, limiting Plum to seven points while Young had 16, scoring nine of those in the fourth quarter. George went only 4-of-14 from the field but was able to capitalize at times with the Liberty leaving her open from deep, recording 11 points.
Every starter for the Liberty besides Jones scored in double figures, with Laney adding 15, Vandersloot with 19 and Ionescu with 13. Stewart, who has struggled in the playoffs after winning MVP for her regular season play, shot just 3-of-17, including 0-of-3 from deep, for 10 points. Many of her missed shots were wide open or rimmed out, but aggressive defense from Clark did not make anything easy.
This series also marked the first loss in a Finals for Stewart in both college and WNBA, as she was previously 6-0, including four NCAA Championships at UConn and two WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm.
Both Teams End Their Historic Seasons
This was the second consecutive the Aces won the championship on the opposing team’s floor, winning in Game 4 last season in Connecticut. Yet, they were still joined by their owner Mark Davis and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to present the trophies and a handful of Aces fans who made the trip to celebrate. Las Vegas finished the season as arguably one of the best teams in WNBA history after doing what had not been done in 21 years as repeat champs.
Candace Parker, who has not seen the floor since July after having foot surgery, became the first player in WNBA history to win three championships with three different teams after winning with the Sparks and the Chicago Sky. This is the third championship for both Clark and Gray.
Even with the loss, the New York Liberty finished the season with their best regular-season record in franchise history. They also gained a new sector of fans and helped to revive New York sports, giving them something to build upon for future seasons.
“We’re proud that we had the opportunity to play for a championship,” Vandersloot said. “It didn’t go our way tonight, but this is what we came here to do… we’ll use it as a learning experience. It can only get better from here,”