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Courtney Vandersloot, Liberty prepare to meet Aces in ‘inevitable’ WNBA Finals

Las Vegas forward Alysha Clark defends New York guard Courtney Vandersloot during an August game in Las Vegas.  (Tribune News Service)
By Kareem Copeland Washington Post

Nine months.

That’s how long it took to reach what seemed to be the predetermined destination of this WNBA season. The Las Vegas Aces will host the New York Liberty in Game 1 of the best-of-five Finals on Sunday – a showdown that began to take shape in January.

A trade that sent former MVP Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun to the Liberty was the first big move in what became an offseason arms race. Two weeks later, former MVP Candace Parker and Alysha Clark, a two-time champion who would end up being named this season’s sixth woman of the year, signed with the Aces. Breanna Stewart, who went on to win her second MVP award, and five-time all-star Courtney Vandersloot – the former Gonzaga standout – went to New York as free agents a week after that.

Both organizations were given the “super team” label, and oddsmakers made them heavy favorites to meet in October. Now, here they are.

“This is the matchup that people have been raving about from its inception,” Aces guard and former UW standout Kelsey Plum said. “And I think that this was inevitable, I guess you could say.”

Nearly from start to finish, the Aces and Liberty had the top two records in the league. Las Vegas (34-6) ended the regular season with a two-game advantage, but New York (32-8) was in contention for the No. 1 seed until the end. The regular-season series was even at 2-2, though the pair met a fifth time in the Commissioner’s Cup – a 19-point Liberty victory. The Aces got revenge with a 13-point regular-season win two days later.

The teams battled not only for on-court supremacy but also for league awards. Stewart won her second MVP award, with 2022 MVP A’ja Wilson of the Aces finishing third in the voting. Wilson won her second consecutive defensive player of the year award, and Stewart was named first-team all-defense. Wilson and Stewart were the top two all-star vote getters for the second year in a row. The Aces beat the Liberty in the all-star skills challenge, and New York guard Sabrina Ionescu won the 3-point contest. Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb was named executive of the year.

“Certainly, this really could become one of those great rivalries, and I think that’s one of the things that’s been so wonderful about the conversation around A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart,” ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo said. “These two young players who are two of the best players in the league, and have been since they came into the league, and they’ve been an incredible foil for one another and for their fan bases.”

This Aces-Liberty pairing could be the beginning of something substantial. The Aces are the defending champs, with an owner in Mark Davis who has been more than willing to invest in the franchise since purchasing it in 2021, including opening a new practice facility this year. The Liberty, which is back in the Finals for the first time since 2002, is the only original franchise still in existence to have never won a WNBA title. It also has aggressive owners in Joe and Clara Tsai, who bought the franchise in 2019.

Games in both markets have become places to be seen, with celebrities taking up courtside seats in Las Vegas and New York.

“When you get celebrities and mainstream music artists, et cetera, in the building, you bring in a different demographic who now becomes interested in the WNBA,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “When we’re able to showcase them on our broadcast, they feel big, like must-see events, which is bringing out people from different parts of the world and entertainment. I think that aspect of it in Vegas and New York has just elevated what we’re feeling off the court in terms of how big this Finals could be and how big the matchups between these two teams can be.”