LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty are poised to tip off their highly anticipated WNBA Finals showdown, a matchup of the preseason favorites projected to battle for the title.
Both teams feature lineups comprised of MVPs, All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers that dominated the regular season. With the title on the line, games are expected to be more competitive than the regular season blowouts — the closest outcome was nine points when they met.
“This is kind of like our March Madness and anything goes,” Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson said. “I don’t think you’ll see a lot of lopsided games because both teams are great and we’re playing at the right time. When we saw each other, some (players) were revving up, some were getting close to it, some were figuring it out. But I think now we’re all on the same page of where we are as a team.”
History will be made no matter which team wins.
The reigning champion Aces could become the first team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks did it 21 years ago. A championship also would further validate one of the top regular seasons in league history, putting them record books along with those Sparks teams, the Houston Comets who won four titles in a row and the Detroit Shock who won three times in six years. Las Vegas set an WNBA record with 34 regular-season victories this season.
A Liberty championship would be their first, and fulfill the hopes of the several blockbuster offseason moves. New York — which won 32 games — and the Las Vegas split the four regular-season meetings, but the Liberty crushed the Aces 82-63 in the Commissioner’s Cup championship.
“They’re a handful,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “You’re not going to stop them with just one person.”
Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said only so much can be gleaned from the regular-season meetings.
“The playoffs go to another level,” Brondello said. “This is for the championship. We’ll have to have a little bit more urgency and little bit more desperation in everything that we do. Every moment matters, and that’s our focus.”
Liberty forward Breanna Stewart agrees with her coach.
“You can feel the weight from the fans and the excitement around the city,” said Stewart, the AP Player of the Year and the WNBA MVP. “When you’re playing basketball at the highest level, there’s pressure for everything. We just want to continue to embrace that.”
The individual matchup to watch will be between Wilson and Stewart, both 6-foot-4 forwards.
Wilson won the MVP award in 2020 and 2022 and believed she played well enough to win again this year. The honor instead went to Stewart, her second one.
They also were opposing captains at this year’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas, with Team Stewart winning by 16 points.
“That’s the marquee matchup that everybody wants to look at,” Wilson said. “I’m glad to be a part of it because it helps our game. But at the same time, I think it’s not going to be about us.”
Stewart has gone undefeated in her college and WNBA careers with the championship on the line.
She was 4 for 4 in NCAA championship runs at UConn, and when she reached the WNBA Finals in 2018 and 2020 with Seattle, the Storm won it all those years as well.
Stewart said she doesn’t take championships for granted.
“It’s hard to get here,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re going, you’re like, ‘I want to go every year.’ Then you realize that’s not possible, so understanding all the work we put in April and May is for this moment right here.”
Games 1 and 2 in Las Vegas, as well as a potential winner-take-all Game 5, are sold out.
The Aces led the WNBA in attendance this season, drawing 9,551 fans per game and selling out seven games. A franchise record 17,406 watched them play the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 10 at nearby and more spacious T-Mobile Arena because of a scheduling conflict at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Aces guard Kelsey Plum is a New York fan and Liberty sharpshooter Sabrina Ionescu is a Las Vegas fan — when it comes to the NFL.
Plum ended a recent Zoom interview by saying, “Go Giants.” Her husband, tight end Darren Waller, plays for the New York Giants after being traded there by the Las Vegas Raiders following last season.
Ionescu is the fiancee of Raiders center Hroniss Grasu.
So Plum and Ionescu should have at least one friendly face in the crowd on the road during the series.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this story.
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