Las Vegas, NV – The Las Vegas Aces entered Sunday’s season-opening game a popular pick by many to emerge from the 2019 season as WNBA Champions, and after getting a solid team effort with contributions from nearly every player- except for the biggest, and perhaps best, more on her later- they showed many people why that is already a very astute pick by dominating the talented yet short-handed Los Angeles Sparks to the tune of an impressive 83-70 victory. Reigning 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson began the evening by taking a mic at halfcourt and expressing her own -and the team’s- appreciation for the Las Vegas faithful, exuding the exact mix of grace, poise, and confidence that has already come to be one of her hallmarks in her short professional career. Then, Wilson and her Aces teammates went out and displayed those three attributes in spades, with Wilson and the dynamic Kayla McBride leading the way with 21 and 20 points, respectively.
Although won comfortably by the Aces, Sunday’s game was quite closely contested and the action thrilled and brought the crowd of 7,249 -including one Kobe Bean Bryant, who attended the game and sat courtside, enthusiastically enjoying the action along with his daughter Gianna’s Mamba Mentality AAU Team- to its collective feet on countless occasions.
The fact that the Mamba himself was in attendance was not lost on the players either, according to Kayla McBride.
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Jackie Young, the top overall pick in last month’s WNBA Draft overcame a first half in which she didn’t attempt a shot and seemed content to defer to her more proven teammates with a much more aggressive second half, including the third quarter in which the rookie out of Notre Dame shot 4-for-4 from the field, for 8 points.
While the Aces were without the services of superstar center Liz Cambage, who is still dealing with some lingering Achilles tendinitis, and was at the game on the bench with her team in street clothes, coach and President of Basketball Operations Bill Laimbeer proved clairvoyant in his recent decision to re-up with reserve forward/center Dearica Hamby. The post out of Wake Forest just signed a new three-year pact with the team last week, and she paid instant dividends upon being inserted into the lineup on Sunday. Hamby excelled in her role of the bench, providing an instant spark on both ends, as she showed her ability to stay in front of Sparks’ perimeter players on switches in the pick and roll game, and was very active and effective on the glass, as evidenced by her 12 points and 14 rebounds.
“I wanted our bench to change the complexion of the game; that’s what great teams do, and they did that tonight… Dearica was a BIG part of that.” – Bill Laimbeer
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The Sparks were led by Maria Vadeeva who had 24 points and 5 rebounds, and Nneka Ogwumike, who contributed 17 points and 11 boards. The loss spoiled the regular season coaching debut for new Los Angeles coach Derek Fisher, who nonetheless was seen sharing a nice moment following the game with his longtime teammate and classmate from the illustrious 1996 NBA Draft.
McBride, Wilson and Kelsey Plum would set the tone and let it be known that they weren’t playing around early, as they would each take turns knocking down shots from the midrange (Wilson) on tough pull-ups in transition (McBride) and from deep (Plum). The most electrifying moment of the first half came when Plum would find Wilson with a nice lob up and the second-year starlet southpaw from South Carolina brought the crowd to their feet with an uber-athletic catch and finish. While Chelsea Gray came out aggressively for the Sparks, McBride would answer back for the home team as she seemingly hit an endless array of contested jumpers in transition. Reserve Dearica Hamby would make her presence felt instantly upon her insertion into the game, as she erased a Kalani Brown layup attempt, which would lead directly to a corner three from McBride.
Hamby continued to give Laimbeer inspired play off the bench, showing her versatility in closing out and chasing down perimeter players off of switches in pick and roll action, and also staying active on the glass on offense, thereby giving her team additional possessions.
When McBride was sent back into the game by Laimbeer with 6:14 to go in the first half, the Aces held a sizable 11-point lead, at 34-23. But Nneka Ogwumike would do her best to keep the score close for the visiting Sparks in the 2nd, putting in work on both ends of the floor.
McBride’s hot hand would continue in the 2nd half, as she opened things up aggressively on th eoffensive end. Aces’ rookie and first-round Draft pick Jackie Young was somewhat deferential in the first half, as evidenced by the fact that she did not attempt a shot in the game’s first twenty minutes. That would change in the game’s third frame, however, as she came out decidedly more active and assertive following the halftime intermission. Young’s floater in the lane would push the Aces’ lead to thirteen, at 59-46. Young would close out a strong quarter in her professional regular season debut with eight points in the third.
Wilson would make an incredibly improbable runner in the lane to push the Aces’ lead to fourteen, at 61-47, but she failed to convert the ensuing free thrown after being fouled while making the circus shot, even incredulously asking her teammates “did it go in?” Wilson would redeem herself on the next trip down the floor, as she knocked down a pair of shots from the foul line to push the Las Vegas lead to 16 points, at 63-47. Hamby and veteran pivot Caroline Swords were instrumental in doing all of the dirty work in the third quarter, setting space-creating screens and getting after loose balls.
Backup guard Sydney Colson would bring the crowd to their feet late in the third quarter as she made a deft move along the baseline converting the reverse layup in the process. Colson would then impact the game on the defensive end as well, as she stripped a seemingly unmolested path to the basket, but failed to convert on the desperation three at the third quarter buzzer.
McBride continued her torrid shooting in the fourth, knocking down a long trey that would prompt Fisher to once burn another timeout, then coming out of the timeout, the increasingly versatile McBride would show how adept she can be as a facilitator, as she unselfishly made a nice touch pass to Hamby who was fouled, but still converted the layup to push the Aces lead to almost a 20-point advantage at 77-58. McBride would make another three-pointer followed by a tough contested layup to give her a smooth and efficient 20 on the night, as the Aces would push their lead to as much as 21 points before the Sparks made a last-ditch effort at making a run, that would ultimately come up short, as the home team prevailed by a final score of 83-70.
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