Aces on the brink

Can the Aces win two in a row to save their season?

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PALMETTO, FL - SEPTEMBER 24: Dearica Hamby #5 of the Las Vegas Aces shoots the ball against the Connecticut Sun during Game 3 of the Semifinals of the WNBA Playoffs on September 24, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Connecticut Sun flipped the script on the Las Vegas Aces. Connecticut outscored Las Vegas 24-12 in the fourth quarter in Thursday’s Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five semifinal series. About 48 hours prior, the Aces outscored the Sun by the same margin to come away with a victory in Game 2. 

The Aces collapsed after taking a three-possession lead into crunch time. Las Vegas led by seven with 5:33 remaining after Angel McCoughtry’s sixth made basket of the game. The Aces scored just four points on their next 11 possessions and turned it over five times. The Sun, across all 40 minutes, turned the ball over just four times on Thursday night. 

Meanwhile, Connecticut scored on five straight possessions after that McCoughtry jumper. The Sun scored on nine of their 11 possessions in that same span to close the game on a 20-4 run. 

While the Aces did get some good looks in that span that simply did not go in, the Sun looked much more comfortable offensively against the Las Vegas defense in that closing stretch. When the Aces hedged on ball screens, Briann January drilled a wide-open pull-up jumper and found Brionna Jones rolling to the rim for a layup.

When the Aces switched, Jones got a deep touch and scored inside right over McCoughtry. The Aces could not stay in front of Alyssa Thomas one-on-one; the All-Star forward drove right to the rim for two layups. 

League MVP A’ja Wilson did get two clean looks on pull-up jump shots that did not fall. In a string of four Aces possessions, Wilson also earned one trip to the foul line, and Danielle Robinson turned it over trying to make a long entry pass to Wilson. 

Surely the Aces can take heart overall in the job they have done defensively on Sun leading scorer DeWanna Bonner, who shot just 4-for-11 in Game 3. Bonner has shot 33 percent from the field through three games with a total of just eight free throw attempts.

In possibly her biggest play of the series to date, though, Bonner drove by McCoughtry from the corner and finished around Wilson’s help as part of that string of five straight scores for the Sun. McCoughtry struggled mightily in Game 3, shooting 1-for-9 in the paint according to WNBA.com and logged just six minutes in the first half. 

The final two minutes only got worse for Las Vegas after Connecticut had erased the seven-point deficit. McCoughtry committed her fifth foul going for an offensive rebound but sent Bonner to the line in the process because Connecticut was in the bonus. Wilson got stripped on the ensuing Aces possession. Then trailing by three after a miss by Jones, Jackie Young was called for an offensive foul driving into January as Young tried to take matters into her own hands.

Kayla McBride continued to struggle, nearly mirroring her Game 1 performance (2-for-7 shooting in 25 minutes) with 1-for-7 shooting in 33 minutes in Game 3. McBride turned it over on a sideline inbounds pass coming out of a timeout looking for McCoughtry. Alyssa Thomas jumped the passing lane and took it the other way for a score to put the Sun up by seven with 45 seconds remaining. With the game mostly in hand for the Sun at that point, McBride turned it over again looking to push it up the floor and get a quick score. 

Connecticut has been the tougher, more dialed-in group through three games against the team that prides itself on its toughness, rebounding, and physicality. Wilson is shooting 55 percent from the floor, and the Aces needed possibly the very best performance to date of her young WNBA career in Game 2 to eke out a victory as the Sun played the final 35 minutes of that game without their star power forward

The Sun have proven to be a formidable opponent. And yet, the Aces’ self-inflicted wounds cannot be ignored. McCoughtry and McBride must play better for Las Vegas to expect to win. Head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer waited until his team dropped a game in a five-game series to make a lineup change he later admitted he had been wanting to make. Connecticut answered the call in winning time in Game 3 as the Aces, who also laid an egg with a sluggish effort in Game 1, fell apart. 

Connecticut earned its current 2-1 advantage in the series. But the door hasn’t been slammed shut just yet. Las Vegas now must rattle off two wins, starting with Sunday’s Game 4. Both teams have two days to prep. With their season on the line on Sunday, how will the Aces respond?