UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Riquna Williams did not hesitate. Coming off the bench, the Aces’ guard shot the ball as soon as it hit her hands. Swish. The next possession, she did it again. Swish.
The Las Vegas Aces beat the Connecticut Sun on Sunday 78-71, winning the franchise’s first WNBA championship. Chelsea Gray won the Finals MVP while A’ja Wilson now will have a championship ring to add to her two MVP awards, Defensive Player of the Year, Olympic gold medal and NCAA title.
The Aces won under Becky Hammon, the coach who brought in a more open offense and aggressive defense. Beyond the schemes, though, Hammon helped her team learn to believe in itself, and that is what had Las Vegas celebrating at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“When you take the word ‘encourage,’ which actually means to give courage to another person, that's what I've tried to speak into them every day,” Hammon said after the game. “It's how much I believed in them, and that we could be special if we all do it together.”
The courage showed up in Williams hitting three after three to help put the Aces up for good. It showed up in Wilson scoring 11 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, and Gray scoring 20. It showed up in Dearica Hamby, who missed much of the postseason with a bone contusion, coming back and giving meaningful minutes in the Finals. It showed up when the Aces went with a small lineup Sunday to play against the big Sun lineup that included 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones.
“Man, she's been believing in us from the beginning to play our style on both ends of the floor. I don't know if you guys have seen it, but we were small as heck and we just had the belief,” Gray said. “We were scrappers and that's what she instilled in us from the beginning. It was from the beginning of training camp until now. So, we've been working on it and working for each other.”
Hammon played for 15 years in the WNBA, seven of those seasons with the San Antonio Stars, the team that would move to Las Vegas and become the Aces. After retiring, she became a coach with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich. She interviewed for head coaching jobs in the NBA several times, but she was never offered the top job until Aces owner Mark Davis did it last offseason.
The 2021 Aces were knocked out of the playoffs in the semifinals by the Phoenix Mercury. The year before that, they were swept in the finals by the Seattle Storm. Coached by NBA legend Bill Laimbeer, they were a very good team, but the offense they ran didn’t allow players to be themselves. In the offseason, Laimbeer retired and Hammon was brought in, changing the face of the organization.
Under Hammon, they had the most potent offense in the league, averaging 90.4 points per game in the regular season. Her players said she meshed with them from the first day of training camp.
“It's been great from start to finish. She demands excellence from us each and every day,” Gray said. “It's fun to do that with somebody that you know has your back, and she's instilled that into us each moment, and so it's fun to raise that banner with her.”
Raising the banner will be the latest accomplishment for the team in Hammon’s first year. The Aces won the Commissioner’s Cup and earned the top seed for the postseason. Wilson won MVP and DPOY, Jackie Young won Most Improved Player and Hammon won Coach of the Year. Gray was the only starter not named to the All-Star Game, and she went on to win Finals MVP.
Hammon said building the culture to win all those awards started with accountability.
“First thing that you have to do in building a championship culture is to set a tone of accountability. Bringing people together for a common goal that's bigger than themselves, and then you've got to get the buy-in factor. My buy-in factor on each one of these women has been high, and I think they respond to me well. I try to be very clear with what their job is, what the expectation is,” Hammon said. “Then, everybody is held to the same line in the sense of, you know, nobody is shooting it over two, three people. Play the right way and everybody wins, and when we win, everything else takes care of itself.”
With the Aces core signed through the next few seasons, this could be the start of a dynasty. But before that, they get to celebrate with the first major championship won by a team in Las Vegas with a parade that will start at Caesar’s Palace and end at the Bellagio Fountains.
Las Vegas gets to celebrate the win fueled by a coach who simply believed in her players.