clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New York Liberty fall to Las Vegas Aces, 88-75, in epilogue to Commissioner’s Cup

The Liberty could’t quite repeat the magic of the Commissioner’s Cup victory in Vegas, running out of luck in an 88-75 defeat

New York Liberty v Las Vegas Aces

Typically, The Rematch is billed as the bigger event. Frazier-Ali, Tyson-Holyfield. Shrek.

But the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces weren’t going to recreate the hype of their matchup in the Commissioner’s Cup on Tuesday night; pride, rivalry, and even postseason seeding are wonderful motivators to be sure, but neither are, you know, money.

With that said, nobody expected these two heavyweights to produce a snoozer, despite the 10:00 p.m. ET start. Las Vegas entered Thursday night having lost their last two games, including the Commissioner’s Cup, by a combined 57 points to their cross-country counterpart, including being handed their first L at home in 2023. New York, meanwhile, could inch to within two games of Las Vegas with another win on Thursday, with another matchup between the WNBA’s two best teams coming down the pike.

“Now it’s kind of a new mindset back to regular-season games, and getting that number one spot is extremely important to us,” said Stefanie Dolson before the game.

The Liberty, though, didn’t just tell us it was important. They showed it, starting Thursday’s action on an 8-0 run that sent the typically lively Las Vegas crowd into a nervous murmur, and Becky Hammon into calling a timeout. The Aces may no longer be in a league of their own, but do they now have a sea foam kryptonite?

Those worries were quickly assuaged. Hammon fed her squad some smelling salts, as Chris Shearn of the YES Network broadcast put it, and the league’s best (for now) woke up. Chelsea Gray led a scoring burst from the Aces, getting into the lane with more ease than she had in either of the previous two matchups.

Elsewhere, the shooting woes that had plagued the home team in the Cup game were nowhere to be found in Thursday’s first half. Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young each hit two triples off of classic Vegas ball movement; by halftime, the Aces were already 5-12 from deep after shooting just 5-26 on Tuesday.

The Liberty, meanwhile, likely would have been able to keep up if not for Jonquel Jones, the Commissioner’s Cup’s MVP, falling into early foul trouble. Jones played just eight minutes in the first half while accruing three whistles, so New York’s biggest advantage was glued to the pine for much of the first half. Gone was the rebounding edge the Liberty so thoroughly enjoyed last time out (18-14 in favor Vegas at half), and gone was a major source of two-point scoring (NY shot 6-17 from two in the first half).

“JJ is such an important player for us. She got in early foul trouble, maybe I should have, probably, put her back in,” said Brondello, dryly, in post-game.

New York managed to keep it tight, however, trailing just 25-21 at the end of the first quarter and 41-38 toward the end of the first half. However, too much eventually became too much, and the Aces closed the second quarter on a 12-2 run, making the halftime score 53-40.

A’ja Wilson, with no Jones no longer patrolling the paint, started to feast as the clock wore down, giving Vegas as balanced of a scoring attack as you could ask for. At the end of the first half, Gray and Young had 13 points, Plum had 12, and Wilson had 11. Off the bench, Kierstan Bell provided an all-around punch scoring four points but making countless hustle plays, including three o-boards. The Aces no longer seemed as paper thin as they did on Tuesday.

The game may have been over before the third quarter started if not for Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu keeping the Libs afloat with ten points each. Breanna Stewart struggled mightily, again, shooting just 1-9 in the first half, often looking somewhere between befuddled and frustrated with a physical yet very effective Aces defense.

Her poor shooting performance, though, didn’t doom her Liberty, as it may have earlier this season. Jones returned to the floor and avoided her dreaded fourth foul, anchoring a defense that allowed just 17 points in the third quarter, including just four paint points, proving that her MVP trophy from the Commissioner’s Cup was no fluke:

Offensively, Ionescu started to erupt, nailing three of her six 3-point attempts in the period — yeah, she was gunning — and striking fear in a Vegas crowd that had watched her have the greatest Three-Point Contest performance of all time at the WNBA All-Star Game. As it’s been all season, hot shooting and strong defense were all New York needed to right the ship, shaving nine points off the Aces’ lead out of halftime. At 68-64, we were headed for one helluva fourth quarter.

We didn’t quite get that, though. It was entertaining enough, but the Liberty never could make it all the way up the hill, as the 13-point lead the Aces had built by halftime was too big, as a whole to overcome. The three turnovers the Liberty committed on their first three offensive possessions of the fourth quarter exemplified much of why their efforts fell short: New York coughed it up a whopping eight times in the final frame, some thanks to tough defense, but too many self-inflicted wounds. On the night, Las Vegas scored 21 points off TOs, compared to just 8 for NY.

“I think it’s tough playing a team so many times in such a short amount of times, because I think, sometimes, you tend to overthink in wondering what they’re gonna change, what they’re going to throw out, the adjustments that they’ve made,” said Ionescu. “And I think that took us a little bit out of our game and moving with the ball, being able to dictate what we want to, offensively... I think we all tried to slow the game down too much and play to the mismatches that we had instead of just getting them in the flow, and the good thing is, is that’s in our control.”

Combine a flustered offense with a weakened rebounding effort — the Aces accumulated more offensive and defensive boards than their guests — and despite finishing the game 15-39 from deep, the possession disparity was too much to overcome for New York. Final score: Las Vegas 88, New York, 75.

The Aces played a classically Aces game, with their four aforementioned stars (with Candace Parker out) all scoring between 22 and 16 points. Gray in particular was the star of this one, not only tying Ionescu with a game-high 22, but racking up 11 assists and 10 boards to secure her second career triple-double:

Of her all-world point guard, Hammon confirmed what we all saw on display Thursday, calling Gray, “one of the most competitive people I know. You feel really good when Chelsea Gray is on your team; I’ll say that.”

Gray was running the show with the Aces’ smaller unit — replacing Stokes with with Alysha Clark — and it was incredibly effective; Clark may have shot just 1-6 from deep, but her +16 plus-minus was more indicative of her impact, especially guarding Stewart one-on-one.

“I think she’s really physical; she really took up a lot of the space of Stewie. She knows tendencies, she’s a great defender...she’s just a tough, experienced player.”

In the end, New York simply couldn’t survive without Jones on the floor, losing their minutes without the Bahamian big by a whopping 20 points. Laney and Ionescu, though, were the only offensively efficient visitors, combining for 39 points and 27 shots, including nine treys. Stewart never quite got it going, finishing 3-15 thanks to a ruthless Vegas defense, although she finished with seven boards, four assists and four blocks. She never goes too quietly. Unfortunately, Courtney Vandersloot did, finishing with seven assists but not nearly as effective as she was in the Cup, turning it over five times.

The Las Vegas Aces bounced back with a vengeance after losing on their home floor for the first time this season, but that wasn’t all they needed to split this doubleheader-of-sorts with the Liberty. The Aces maintained their defensive intensity all game, got the Cup MVP in foul trouble, and finally made some open shots. Despite all that, the Liberty still had a chance to win it, trailing by just five points with five minutes to go. Yet, turnovers and rebounding did them in. Possessions, possessions, possessions. Well, at least they won the big one.

Extracurricular Activities

For the Aces, now 28-3, it wasn’t just enough to beat the Liberty. They had to send a message. And that they did, throughout an intense, chirp-filled fourth quarter.

First, it was A’ja Wilson taking exception to a foul from Kayla Thornton, frustration which had been building all game:

Then, as the buzzer sounded, it was Chelsea Gray letting everybody know exactly what Jocelyn Willoughby had done the night prior (take a last-second three, although there was a half-second still left on the shot-clock. Still...)

These two teams play again, at the Barclays Center, Monday August 28th. If you want to ignore that the Commissioner’s Cup isn’t technically a regular-season game, the series is currently 2-2, and that matchup will decide it. Fun!

The Case of the Missing Shoes

Prior to Thursday’s contest, Sabrina Ionescu tweeted that her shoes had been taken from the visiting locker room sometime after New York’s Commissioner’s Cup victory:

Odd, to say the least. Prior to the game, Sandy Brondello said “I haven't heard anything...It’s not about the shoes, per se, it’s about the insoles,” although Brondello did confirm her star guard had another pair on deck. The insoles had been customized for Ionescu to help her deal with a previous ankle injury.

Unfortunately, there was no update postgame: “No idea. I haven’t hear anything yet,” said Ionescu.

Up Next

Talk about a quick turnaround. The Liberty will fly (on a chartered flight, since they are leaving the site of the Commissioner’s Cup) to Phoenix to play the famously-loved two-city back-to-back against Diana Taurasi and the Mercury. Tip-off is once agains scheduled for 10:00 p.m. ET.