WNBA semifinals: Storm beat Lynx at the buzzer; MVP A'ja Wilson leads Aces to tie series

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A’ja Wilson, the WNBA's 2020 MVP, took over in the final minute to lead the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces to an 83-75 victory and out of what was looking like a 0-2 series hole against the No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun. The series is now tied.

It was a 3-point fest that turned into a block party in the long-await semifinal between the No. 2 Seattle Storm and the No. 4 Minnesota Lynx. The Storm survived, 88-86, at the buzzer after the game was postponed on Sunday when three Storm players received inconclusive COVID-19 tests that morning.

Storm takes Game 1 on last-second bucket

Alysha Clark got the offensive rebound off just in time to give the Storm a 1-0 lead in the semifinal series. The lead swapped back and forth throughout the final four minutes in an offensive showing.

“That’s the only way the game could have ended right now,” Clark told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game, referencing also the oddity of the last 48 hours. Three players were in isolation after their inconclusive tests and did not participate in practices during that time.

Clark, who had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists, put back the shot after a missed layup by Sami Whitcomb. It broke the tie made by Lynx star Napheesa Collier with 14.8 seconds left.

Jewell Loyd led the Storm with 25 points. She was 8-for-9 overall, missing only one of her five 3-point attempts. Her driving layup with 30 seconds left gave the Storm a brief lead after Clark and the Lynx’s Damiris Dantas traded 3-pointers. Collier answered it.

Breanna Stewart had a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds. Her five points out of halftime gave the Storm a small cushion they semi-comfortably held until late in the fourth.

But she was stymied late by Collier, who had three straight blocks on Stewart in the final minutes as the Storm tried to put it away. Collier led the Lynx with 25 points, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal and six blocks.

Collier and league MVP A’ja Wilson have drawn praise from both fans and fellow players for their WNBA Tea podcast. They combined for 13 blocks on the night.

Storm veteran Sue Bird led all players with eight assists and had a key 3-pointer in the final minutes.

Storm, Lynx go shot-for-shot in offensive showing

Breanna Stewart in a yellow jersey jumps up.
Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart shoots between Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier and guard Rachel Banham in Game 1 of their semifinal series. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Two of the top three offensive rated teams in the league this season put on a 3-point shooting spectacle, combining to shoot 27-for-57 from behind the arc. Seattle shot 50 percent (13-for-26) and had 10 made 3s by the half. The most 3s a Lynx team had ever allowed in a half before that was nine.

Their combined 17 made 3-pointers are the second-most in a half in WNBA playoff history.

It was hot shooting for both squads as they went back-and-forth through the entire game. They combined for nearly 100 points at the half as the Storm led, 50-45.

The Storm had the slight edge, going 10-for-14 from deep until two misses in the final minute of the first half put them at 66.7 percent (10-for-16). Natasha Howard, on an assist from Stewart, and Stewart, on an assist from Bird, hit back-to-back open 3-pointers with 1:38 on the clock to take the lead back and open it up slightly.

Loyd had 18 first-half points on 5-for-6 shooting, including 4-for-5 from the 3-point line.

Bridget Carleton led the Lynx with an identical shooting line for 14 points. The team hit 7 of their 14 attempts from deep and 42.1 percent overall.

Crystal Dangerfield again started slow, albeit with defensive star Alysha Clark guarding her. She had two points in the first half, identical to the Lynx’s second-round game, and finished with four. She had six assists.

Sylvia Fowles did not play for the Lynx as she continues to return from a calf injury. She played sparingly in the second round game after missing five weeks.

Wilson carries Aces to tie series

A'ja Wilson in a white "VOTE!" T-shirts giving a fist bump to Bill Laimbeer.
Las Vegas Aces center A'ja Wilson, left, and head coach Bill Laimbeer exchange fist bumps before their win Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Wilson converted the and-1 with 1:03 left in the game to break the tie. She added a bucket on the ensuing possession and Dearica Hamby put back her missed free throw to pad the lead even further. The top-seeded Aces won, 83-75, to tie the series at 1-1. Game 3 of the best-of-five series is Thursday.

The third-year league MVP carried the Aces throughout a tight game, but one that Las Vegas could never quite build a lead in until late. They closed on a 24-12 run despite another lackluster performance through much of the game.

Wilson scored a playoff career-high 29 points on 13 of 19 shooting. Her seven blocks tied a career-high and she added seven rebounds and three assists. None were more important than late in the game when the Aces broke a 75-75 tie for the final time.

“When people say defense wins games, that’s really important,” Wilson told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game. “We really had to buckle down. We looked like a hot mess in the first game.”

The Aces scored a season-low 10 points in the first quarter of the series and struggled to make any shots, going 25.7 percent from the floor in Game 1. In Game 2 they shot 47.7 percent, in part because they weren’t pushed out to the 3-point line, and were nearly even in rebounds with the Sun.

Kayla McBride, Angel McCoughtry and Hamby all scored 11 points each.

Wilson said the Aces are back to looking “like us,” which should be worrisome for the Sun going forward. They also avoided a detrimental deficit. Teams that go down 0-2 in best-of-five series are 0-13 all-time in WNBA history. A No. 1 team had never been down two games since the new playoff format was put in place in 2016.

Sun without Alyssa Thomas early

The Sun were without defensive star Alyssa Thomas within the first five minutes of the game. Thomas, who has played with two torn labrums for years now, hurt her shoulder and left the building to be evaluated, per Rowe. She was ruled out for the game shortly later by the team.

Thomas returned with about three minutes left, her arm in a sling. She was responsible for keeping Hamby, the two-time Sixth Woman of the Year award winner, quiet in the first game of the series. Thomas chipped in 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks in that game and is the engine for the Sun all around.

DeWanna Bonner picked up the slack, scoring a team-high 23 points with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. Briann January scored 20. Both Jasmine Thomas and Brionna Jones each had 10.

Bonner turns up the 3-point heat out of half

Bonner turned it up another notch to start the second half, hitting three 3-pointers within the first three minutes. In a 30-second span, Bonner, Briann January and Bonner laid in deep shots to force Aces coach Bill Laimbeer to take a timeout. The Sun led, 53-46, at the 7:02 mark.

“Don’t let down, don’t let down. “They don’t [explicit] respect us,” Bonner said at the timeout, per ESPN’s Holly Rowe on the broadcast.

The Aces came back in standard fashion — free throws — only to have Jasmine Thomas hit back-to-back shots and regain the lead. The Sun went into the final quarter up 63-59 by holding off the Aces just enough.

It was a back-and-forth game throughout with the Sun leading, 23-21, at the first break and 39-38 at the half. They had trailed by three when Alyssa Thomas exited the game.

Why WNBA postponed Storm-Lynx Game 1

There were three Storm players who had inconclusive tests that came back early Sunday, commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters on a conference call earlier Tuesday. Those three players were put in isolation, she said. Per protocol, those with inconclusive tests went through extensive additional testing. They were cleared to rejoin the team after two negative tests came back, though the final player did not get the result back until late.

The league is using various different types of tests and different technologies to run the tests. Players who had inconclusive tests during the season had to skip games while in isolation, but Engelbert said the difference this time was due to the number of inconclusive results and what it might mean. The decision to postpone the game was due in part to concern about community spread, she said.

"The lab reports the results, and we evaluate them from a clinical perspective,” Engelbert said on the call. “We did not have that many [inconclusive tests during this season]. We were evaluating this very closely, because we hadn't had multiple people on one day. So that's why we made the decision to postpone the game. We needed to ensure the integrity of the bubble, and that's what we've done here."

Engelbert has been consistent in how she talks about the COVID-19 protocols and the importance of following the science to keep players safe. She said a forfeit will come into play if a “substantial portion of the team [couldn’t play].” The league also has to keep an eye on hurricanes while in Florida and evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

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