How the Aces came from behind to win a WNBA playoff classic

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 04: Chelsea Gray #12 of the Las Vegas Aces reacts against the Seattle Storm during the third quarter of Game Three of the 2022 WNBA Playoffs semifinals at Climate Pledge Arena on September 04, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Becky Hammon positioned herself behind the microphone and shook her head.

“It was a hell of a game,” the Las Vegas Aces coach said of her team’s WNBA semifinal contest. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of something like that. The back and forth, it was a battle.”

A few minutes later, she racked her brain again.

Hammon played in 450 WNBA games during her 16 seasons between the New York Liberty and San Antonio Silver Stars. Then she spent eight years as an assistant coach alongside Gregg Popovich with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. But in all her years of professional basketball, she can recall no game that tops the 110-98 overtime win her Aces secured over the Storm on Sunday in Seattle.

“I can’t think of a back-and-forth between two heavyweights like this game,” she said. “I mean, it was just big shot after big shot after big shot. You get two players that are in the prime of their careers, MVP candidates (Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson) just going at it. You really can’t draw it up any better from a spectator viewpoint.”

No script or screenplay can compare to what basketball fans witnessed Sunday.

The game didn’t start that way. The Aces opened on a tear, building a 15-point lead late in the second quarter. But the Storm refused to go down easy. Not on their home court. Not with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Not in the playoffs.

So, they made a comeback.

A Stewart layup with 4:48 left in the third quarter tied the game at 52. From there, the battle was on. The teams traded baskets and leads for the next 14 minutes and 38 seconds.

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

With 11.3 seconds left on the clock in regulation, though, the Storm seemed to have victory in hand. Jewell Loyd had sunk two free throws to give her team an 89-85 lead. The Aces would need two possessions to catch up to Seattle, and time was running out.

But Hammon was not ready to concede. She called a timeout and drew up a play. And the Aces executed it to perfection.

“All season I’ve had the luxury of being able to draw something, and stuff they’ve never seen before and they can go out and do it,” Hammon said. “That’s a skill set and a luxury, because I can kind of read what they are doing defensively and draw the play accordingly.”

Riquna Williams cut off a screen at the top of the key and swished a 3-pointer for the Aces. Bird threw up her hands, frustrated with the defensive effort from the Storm.

Williams averaged just 6.7 points this season, but she proved the ideal player to catch and shoot in that situation. She finished with 14 points off the bench for Las Vegas, including a 4-for-8 performance from beyond the arc.

Then, with 2.9 seconds left to play, Wilson — who led the Aces with 34 points and 11 rebounds — drove to the hoop, completing a step-through that gave her team a 90-89 lead. But the five-point swing wasn’t enough to close out a win. Instead, Bird drilled a 3-pointer from the corner to put her team back up 92-90, forcing the Aces to call another timeout and draw up another play.

This time Jackie Young played the hero, scoring a layup for the Aces as time expired to send the game to overtime.

“They scored five points in five seconds,” Bird said of the Williams and Wilson buckets. “I understand that the last plays are going to stick out because they’re dramatic and exciting, and I’m sure it was great TV, but we were up four.”

In between the Williams 3-pointer and the Wilson score in the paint, Seattle’s Tina Charles — who shoots 88.5 percent from the line — missed a pair of free throws. That, combined with Seattle’s missteps on defense, allowed Las Vegas to force overtime.

Once the extra period started, the excitement of the back-and-forth affair transitioned to all-out dominance from the Aces.

“That was a lot of momentum,” Chelsea Gray said. “We said in the huddle that the momentum was on our side, and going into overtime we were ready. We came out locked in for those five minutes.”

Chelsea Gray scored a playoff career-high 29 points. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Gray spearheaded the attack, scoring eight points in the last 2:06 of overtime and helping the Aces outscore the Storm 18-6 in the frame. She finished the game with 29 points, a new playoff career high, as well as 12 assists and five rebounds.

“Chelsea is special in certain situations,” Hammon said. “What a luxury. You can just give her the ball and she is going to make something happen.”

As a unit, the Aces showed balance and poise down the stretch, the combination of which makes them a favorite to win the WNBA title — though three other formidable teams would like to challenge that notion, including the Storm.

In overtime, Las Vegas went 6-for-9 from the field, with a well-rounded offense that included three 3-pointers and three makes around the rim. Gray, Plum, Wilson and Kiah Stokes all scored in the period.

The Storm also displayed balance in regulation, with six players in double figures, but that didn’t translate into overtime in the same way the Aces’ attack did. Seattle went 3-for-10 in extra time, getting four points from Stewart and two from Loyd.

Because the Aces kept their cool through a frantic finish to regulation and then dominated overtime, they snagged the road win in a hostile environment. They also grabbed a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five series and took one step closer to the WNBA Finals.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to stay locked in,” Wilson said. “We are playing in a hard place to play, but that’s how champions are born.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.