Las Vegas Aces rout Phoenix Mercury to close out first-round playoff series

Chelsea Gray #12 of the Las Vegas Aces.
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The top-seeded Las Vegas Aces took care of business Saturday night vs. the Phoenix Mercury, smothering the No. 8 seed with a 117-80 victory and closing out their first-round, best-of-three series 2-0.

“Obviously happy to put a team away,” said first-year Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon, who’s aiming to lead the Aces to their first WNBA title. “It’s always hard to put a team away.”

Chelsea Gray led Las Vegas with 27 points, eight assists and three rebounds in 25 minutes, while Kelsey Plum added 22 points and four rebounds. Four other players scored in double figures including starters A’ja Wilson (17 points) and Jackie Young (15), while Riquna Williams and Kierstan Bell each scored 11 off the bench.

Balanced shooting translated to several new lines in the record books for the Aces, whose 23 made three-pointers marked a WNBA playoffs record. Las Vegas knocked down 11 threes in the first half, which set a new playoffs record en route to a 63-44 halftime lead. The Aces also set a WNBA playoff record by making their first 10 shots from the field and tied a playoff record by making their first seven three-pointers in a game.

Hammon, however, was much more impressed with a different line on the stat sheet: “Probably my favorite stat of the night is 31 assists on 41 field goals, because it’s been around a year that I’ve been really preaching to them, you know, ‘When we share everybody gets more,'” she explained. “I know it seems counterintuitive — the more you give away, the less you have. But it’s actually the opposite: The more you give, the more you’ll get back because you’re one set of hands giving, but there’s four giving back to you.”

The Aces’ 31 assists marked the most in a postseason game in franchise history and the third most in WNBA playoff history, and their 64.1-percent shooting from the field was the second highest in WNBA playoff history.

MORE WNBA COVERAGE: Chicago Sky roar back with dominant Game 2 win over New York Liberty

“I think right now, as a team, we’re playing our best basketball on both ends,” said Wilson, who set a new mark Saturday as the franchise leader for rebounds in the playoffs after reaching 170. “Like, you want to peak at the right time, and for me individually, that’s what I’m feeling. I’m just putting the work in, after practice and after shootaround, just staying composed.”

The depleted Mercury were led by forward Kaela Davis, who came off the bench to score 23 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes. Diamond DeShields added 21 points but committed six of Phoenix’s 13 turnovers.

“I’m just really proud of this group,” first-year Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters after the game. “They were they were locked in, and we won some really important games when we really needed to, when we were really behind and didn’t have a lot of people and was just really great to see that. And it just totally ran a little bit out of gas and kind of hit a buzzsaw there from the three-point line.”

It was a disheartening end to Phoenix’s season, which suffered another setback Friday when it was announced that starting guard Shey Peddy had ruptured her right Achilles tendon and would be out indefinitely.

Peddy was hurt Wednesday during their 79-63 loss in Game 1 of the series. The fourth-year WNBA veteran, who started 24 games this season and averaged 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, went down on a non-contact play in front of the Mercury bench during the third quarter and had to be carried off the court.

“This is a really big blow,” Nygaard said Friday. “Injuries are so hard for athletes, so to see one of their close friends get injured right in front of them, that’s traumatic.”

The Mercury suffered more than their fair share of disappointment this season, beginning with the detainment of center Brittney Griner in Russia since February. In June, center Tina Charles agreed to a “contract divorce” from the team, and more recently, star guard Diana Taurasi suffered a quad injury and has sat out the last six games. Additionally, the team has been without six-time All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith since the last week of the regular season due to personal reasons.

“They have great fight; they have great, grit,” Nygaard added after the game. “They’re hearty, they’re tough — all those things. We know also that it’s sports, and there’s bigger things in life to be mindful of. A hard as our season was, it’s not as hard as BG’s experience right now, being in a Russian jail. So we try to keep all that in perspective, but this is just a game. There’s a lot of things that people have in their lives that are a lot harder than this.”

The Aces swept the Mercury this season, 5-0, winning the regular-season series 3-0. They’ll next play in a best-of-five semifinal series beginning Sunday, Aug. 28, where they’ll face either the No. 4-seeded Seattle Storm or No. 5 Washington Mystics. The Storm lead their first-round series 1-0, with Game 2 set for Sunday afternoon.

As to how Las Vegas will prepare for their next matchup, Wilson said: “It can be looking different for everybody, but I know we’re going to get in the gym, we’re going to get up and down, just keep doing us. I think that’s the biggest thing: You can’t change anything now. We’ve already laid the foundation down. So we’re just going to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 WNBA Playoffs — Schedule, results, scores, TV details and more

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.