On June 9, 2019, the Las Vegas Aces made their way to Westchester County Center to clash with the winless New York Liberty. Though New York had dropped the first four games of the season, the losing streak was in fact much worse—an 0-for-17 dating back to July 17, 2018. Las Vegas, who had also missed the playoffs in 2018, was a franchise with a different trajectory. In the offseason, the team had acquired center Liz Cambage from the Dallas Wings and, as noted several times in the broadcast, had been picked to win the WNBA title.
So, naturally, the Liberty pulled off the upset.
Off the opening tip, it looked like it would be a long afternoon for the fans at WCC. Vegas cleared out the strong-side post for Cambage, who received the entry pass from Kayla McBride and went to work. Two dribbles, and she backed Amanda Zahui B.down until the New York center stood beneath the basket. A simple hook shot, and the Aces were on the board.
Zahui B and Tina Charles held their own in the first, outscoring Cambage and Wilson 13-11. Wilson, in particular, struggled, scoring her only five points of the game in that first quarter. She exited after picking up her second foul with just under three minutes left, and never got back into rhythm.
Though the Aces carried a 22-19 lead after one, the second quarter was all Liberty. Bria Hartley, starting in place of an under-the-weather Asia Durr, helped the Liberty take the lead for the first time on a transition assist from Brittany Boyd. The fast break came off an Amanda Zahui B.quick outlet, one of many examples of New York pushing a pace Las Vegas couldn’t handle. The Liberty blanked the Aces 7-0 in fast break points, despite the fact that the team went on to average the third most fast break points in the W (10.1 per game) while also playing at the second fastest pace (98.8 possessions per 40 minutes).
For the longest stretch of the season, to that point, the Liberty were a cohesive unit, making adjustments to prevent the issues that had been presented in the first quarter. With shooters surrounding Charles, the team’s MVP was able to work in space and make the correct passes out of double teams. This anticipation pass to Zahui B might have been Charles’ prettiest dime of 2019.
New York’s bench did its part to spark the turnaround, especially on the defensive end. Led by the substitutions of Rebecca Allen, Reshanda Gray, and Tanisha Wright, New York held Las Vegas to 17.6% shooting (3/17), while making 55% (11/20) of their own attempts. At the halftime horn, that 26-15 second quarter gave the Liberty a 45-37 advantage.
In third quarter, momentum pinballed back and forth, with each team alternating on scoring runs of its own. As would be the case for much of the season, Boyd was dared to shoot. In this game, she did, hitting a three and a deep two. She punctuated her scoring that quarter with an acrobatic downhill layup in the open court that ballooned the New York lead to 14.
After a Hartley steal and finish pushed the lead to 16, Vegas took a timeout. Coach Bill Laimbeer—who had spent five years on the Liberty sidelines—finally deviated from his low post sets, told his guards and wings to attack the basket. McBride and Jackie Young went to work, keying a 13-1 run that brought the Aces back within 4, at 60-56.
McBride was Las Vegas’ most consistent scorer in the game, doing most of her damage attacking the basket. She matched her season-high with seven made baskets inside the arc, taking defenders off the dribble instead of just burying deep shots off curls, as she often did. Her 9 second chance points and 12 points in the paint paced the team, and she was the only player to convert more than half her shot attempts. Two made threes brought her total to 25, and kept Vegas in the game whenever New York began to pull away.
After the lead had been cut to four, the Liberty made a substitution, replacing Boyd with Allen. The substitution immediately paid dividends, with Allen drawing a shooting foul eight seconds after entering. New York went on a 7-0 run to push the lead back up to 11; she would not sit again in the game’s final thirteen minutes.
Allen’s constant off-ball movement and second-chance hustle gave New York the lift they needed to hold off Vegas’ late game body blows. With under five minutes to play and New York clinging to a six point lead, Tina Charles hoisted up a top-of-the-key three that bounced hard off the rim. Four players leapt for the loose ball: Vegas defenders A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, and Tamara Young, and New York’s Rebecca Allen.
Allen soared above them all, backtapping the ball to Bria Hartley, who quickly swung it to Kia Nurse for a wide open three. Nothing but nylon, essentially icing the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 88-78, and New York had its first victory. The players, relief on their faces, tossed t-shirts to the Westchester faithful, the losing streak mercifully over.
Tina Charles, who notched 21 points on 18 shots, spoke about the victory postgame. “After a while you get tired of losing,” she said, “and it felt good to do it against Bill [Laimbeer].” New York’s effort in the paint helped secure the victory. In the end, they held Las Vegas to 35.4% shooting, with the huge front court of Cambage, Wilson, Dearica Hamby and Jisu Park limited to just 26.7% (8/30). Though the Liberty’s struggles would continue throughout the 2019 campaign, putting together a complete performance against one of the league’s best helped the young team gain confidence.