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LAS VEGAS — A’ja Wilson stepped to the free-throw line, and instead of a hush falling over her home crowd, the Aces faithful got louder, and louder, and louder.
“MVP! MVP! MVP!” they chanted.
The crowd didn’t stop until both of her attempts fell through the hoop.
Wilson, who accepted her MVP trophy prior to tipoff, went to the free-throw line 14 times during her team’s 67-64 victory over the Connecticut Sun in the opening game of the WNBA Finals. And every time, the crowd at Michelob Ultra Arena met her with the same three letters over and over again.
Wilson went 12-of-14 from the line, her free throws making up 50 percent of her game-high 24 points.
While the Aces superstar makes highlight-level plays regularly look easy, her efficiency adds further credence to her MVP selection. Wilson has proved her worth on defense, on offense, and now, on the season’s biggest stage, at the free-throw line.
The 14 attempts were her second most this season — Wilson had 15 against the Liberty on July 6 — and her ability to knock down free throws was the X-factor in Las Vegas’ win.
“The big stat line difference tonight was their ability to get to the foul line and play through contact,” Connecticut coach Curt Miller said.
After the Sun eliminated the defending champion Chicago Sky in the semifinals to earn a spot in the championship series against the Aces, Miller applauded his post players. He wanted it put on the record that Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas had knocked Candace Parker out of the playoffs in three of the last four years.
Parker responded by saying that the Sky hang championship banners, not conference banners, alluding to the fact that her team has won a title and the Sun have not.
Drama of the statement aside, the Sun’s post trio did hold Parker to just seven points in the decisive game, which speaks to their strength and toughness.
But against Wilson, when they tried to assert their will in a similar fashion, she answered with strength and toughness of her own.
“I think she can score the ball, ultimately. She’s able to score at different levels,” Jonquel Jones said. “I think that’s a tough challenge. She’s attacking the rim really aggressively right now, so it’s tough.”
Wilson made four of her six field goals in the first quarter as the Aces outscored Connecticut 25-15. From there, the Sun found their rhythm, using their disruptive style of defense to force Las Vegas into mistakes and missed shots. By halftime, Connecticut had gone on a 21-9 run to take a 38-34 lead into the third quarter.
Coach Becky Hammon let her team have it. The coach’s speech, Chelsea Gray said, isn’t appropriate for sharing with the masses, but whatever Hammon said, it did the trick.
“We ramped up our physicality,” Hammon said. “It felt like we had to get punched in the face before we reacted, and then once — you know, you can take a little stinger, and then all of a sudden, have your attention, and they woke up.”
In the third quarter, that’s exactly what the Aces did.
Instead of the Sun getting their way against Las Vegas’ post players, Wilson pushed them around. Her ability to battle in the paint gave the Sun fits defensively, and they weren’t able to stop her without fouling.
Wilson scored 10 of her 24 points in the third frame, with all but two coming at the free-throw line, where she went a perfect 8-for-8.
Then, with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter, Wilson had perhaps the most important sequence of the contest.
The Aces had reclaimed the lead, 57-55, when DeWanna Bonner drove into the paint. Wilson rose up and blocked the shot. She grabbed the rebound, passed the ball to Dearica Hamby and sprinted up the court, catching a pass from Hamby and finishing at the other end.
The play ignited the Aces crowd, as Wilson screamed in celebration, forcing Connecticut to call a timeout.
It was the final momentum push the Aces needed, and they rode the energy to a 3-pointer from Kelsey Plum, a Gray stepback make, a Jackie Young jumper, and a free throw from Plum to close out the game.
Gray finished with 21 points and Young added 11.
But throughout the contest, it was the toughness of the MVP that led the Aces to victory.
“She’s got beast skills,” Hammon said. “She’s a beast human. She’s a good one. I’ll go to battle with her any day.”
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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