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Stewie is back, Aces advance: Biggest takeaways from the WNBA semifinals

Stewie is back, Aces advance: Biggest takeaways from the WNBA semifinals
  • PublishedSeptember 30, 2023

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DALLAS — The Las Vegas Aces are one step closer in their quest to repeat. The defending champions are returning to the WNBA Finals for the second consecutive season and the third time in four years after sweeping the Dallas Wings 3-0 in the semifinals, capped by Friday’s 64-61 victory in Dallas. A’ja Wilson and her top-seeded Aces — who have yet to drop a game in the postseason — have earned a well-deserved break ahead of the Finals, which open Oct. 8 in Las Vegas.

“On our last defensive possession, our mindset was, ‘We’re good, we’ve got this. Let’s just execute,'” Wilson said as Las Vegas closed on an 11-0 run and didn’t allow the Wings to score in the final 5 minutes. “I just felt like we were so connected.”

But which team will the Aces face as they try to become the league’s first back-to-back champions since 2001-02? The No. 2 seed New York Liberty lead the third-seeded Connecticut Sun 2-1 in their semifinal series following a 92-81 Game 3 win Friday in Uncasville. New York seeks its first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2002, and is still looking for its first title.

But the Sun won’t go down without a fight, especially on their home floor at Mohegan Sun Arena. Also in search of its first championship, Connecticut hopes to return to the Finals for the third time in five years, which would set up a rematch of last year’s championship series.

We break down all of Friday’s action and look ahead to Sunday’s Game 4 when the Sun host the Liberty and attempt to stave off elimination (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).

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Breanna Stewart puts up 25-point double-double in Game 3

Breanna Stewart drops 25 points and 11 rebounds as the Liberty take control of the series vs. the Sun.

What we learned in the Liberty’s win over the Sun

The Liberty had their best quarter of basketball in awhile when they jumped to a 37-16 lead at the end of the first period Friday, shooting 62.5% while holding Connecticut to 38.9%. Breanna Stewart found her shot in the first frame before finishing with better than 36% shooting for the first time this postseason (11-for-19 from the field, 1-for-3 from 3).

But the Sun outplayed the Liberty most of the rest of the way, outscoring New York by 11 across the final 30 minutes. If you’re Sun coach Stephanie White, that’s an encouraging sign.

And it’s also an indication for how critical Rebecca Allen — out with a non-COVID illness — is to the Sun. Connecticut really missed her impact defensively, as well as her ability to knock down 3-pointers, stretch the floor and all the intangibles she brings as a veteran.

The Liberty won by their second-largest margin of the postseason, but the Sun are very much still in this series, especially if Allen is able to play Sunday. — Philippou

What we learned as the Aces eliminated the Wings

Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon has stressed defense over and over since the season started. Sure, the Aces can be an offensive machine the likes of few teams in WNBA history. But Hammon knew they had to improve defensively to win another title. Friday’s game showed that.

The Aces’ 64 points was the franchise’s lowest total in a playoff win. They had 20 turnovers — including a late pass that sailed out of bounds from normally sure-handed point guard Chelsea Gray, who referred to it as, “Throwing it in the ocean” — tying the most they’ve had in any game since Hammon took over as coach ahead of last season.

But the Aces still won.

The Wings were 0-of-8 from the field in clutch time, which is defined as when a game is within five points with five or fewer minutes left in regulation/overtime. That is the worst clutch shooting in the playoffs.

“Last year, we were a bit of an anomaly; people are used to our actions now,” Hammon said. “In fact, they’re running some of our actions now. So I knew it was going to come down to improving defense.” — Voepel

What are the keys to Sunday’s Game 4?

For Connecticut, a healthy Allen would help a lot. The Sun also need to get back to their defensive strengths and derive their energy from that end of the floor. Allowing New York to score 50 points in the paint isn’t going to cut it. The Sun’s ability to keep the Liberty out of their transition game remains crucial.

Can New York come through with the energy and focus to ward off what’ll likely be a ferocious Sun effort to force a Game 5? No doubt the Liberty will try to avoid having this series return to Brooklyn and into a winner-take-all scenario.

Another strong shooting night from Stewart would help, but as Game 3 showed, Betnijah Laney is the Liberty’s X factor: She’s scored at least 19 points in four of New York’s five postseason games (she was held to three points in the 15-point Game 1 loss to Connecticut). The Liberty were 16-2 when Laney scored at least 14 points in the regular season. In other words, New York goes as she goes. — Philippou

What will the Aces work on with an extended break before the Finals start?

As was the case between the first round and the semifinals, the Aces will have over a week to prepare for the Finals. They will look to sharpen some things on offense, especially after all the turnovers Friday.

But resting is one of the biggest points of emphasis. Hammon said Aces center Kiah Stokes was “absolutely exhausted” by the end of Friday’s contest after facing the Wings inside.

“We’re going to sit back and watch [the Liberty and the Sun] battle it out,” Hammon said. “We’re happy to be back [in the Finals]. I told them their care factor for each other is a separation factor. It’s something I get to see daily. They dug in like they always do.” — Voepel

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.

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