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2019 WNBA Playoffs Analysis (Round 2): Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby sends Aces to semifinals

In Round 2 of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs, the No. 4 Las Vegas Aces were not a sure bet. In their favor was the right to play host in Sin City, though not at their true Mandalay Bay Events Center home. A scheduling conflict moved them to Thomas and Mack Center. Their visitors? The wide-open No. 5 Chicago Sky who, behind newly-anointed Coach of the Year James Wade, promised to be no easy task. The teams’ last meeting teetered into vitriol that rolled right out of the arena and into the Twittersphere, with Aces center Liz Cambage accused of calling an opponent an offensive name.

In last night’s Round 2 win-or-go-home affair, television cameras showed her calling someone (expletive), a symbol of Las Vegas’ mounting frustration over lapses that allowed Chicago to run up a 14-point lead at one point, draining the energy from the Thomas and Mack crowd. Fresh off a blowout of the Phoenix Mercury in Round 1, the Sky asserted themselves as the team to beat from the opening tip.

“I told them I was proud of their effort,” Wade said after Chicago’s loss. “I felt like we deserved that game, not to take anything from Las Vegas because they’re a great team but I just felt like we deserved it.”

Wade is right. Chicago showed better execution and consistency for the majority of the game. On the way to 20 lead changes and eight ties, the Sky drove up double-digit leads over the Aces but never let the Aces get ahead by more than five points. Chicago also forced Vegas into 18 turnovers (while committing just eight of their own). But the Aces eked out the 93-92 win by chopping off the head of the snake: the Sky’s perimeter shooting.

The Sky shot 33.6% from three-point range in the regular season. Against the Aces, who made a strong defensive stand that knocked Diamond DeShields off her feet more than once, the Sky were held to 28.1% shooting from beyond the arc while banking 46.2% of their shots from deep. When the Sky did attempt threes (32 of them), it wasn’t always by players for whom three-point shooting is a strength. Cheyenne Parker, for example, with a career three-point shooting record of 26.8%, went 0-of-3 last night.

Also working against Chicago was Allie Quigley’s off night. She made 49.3% of her field goals in the regular season, plus 44.2% of her three-pointers. But defensive pressure from Vegas limited her to six points on 2-of-11 shooting from the field and 0-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

The Sky also were out-rebounded 44-36.

It took a circus shot from Dearica Hamby, who earlier in the day was named Sixth Woman of the Year, to give the Aces the win at the final buzzer. With “maestro” Courtney Vandersloot looking to draw a foul and the Aces not falling for it, Vandersloot attempted a pass to Diamond DeShields that ended up in Hamby’s hands. Hamby heaved a 35-footer that swooshed in with authority.

Instead of heading to the foul line to add to a two-point lead, the Sky were sent home.

Hamby appeared to still be in disbelief after the game, but revealed in a postgame presser from the locker room that she had made that shot earlier in the day in practice.

Courtesy of WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, the Aces took a chartered flight to D.C. after the game ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting with the No. 1 Washington Mystics in the semifinals, allowing them a full day of rest, recovery and practice prior to the big game. (The Sparks also traveled by chartered flight to their semifinals destination, Connecticut.)

The Vegas players were ecstatic after the game, but hopefully coach Bill Laimbeer will bring them back to Earth sooner than later to clean up execution errors and lapses that allowed Chicago to run up double-digit leads, forcing the Aces to pull off a come-from-behind victory yet again.

After the game, Cambage said:

We tend to do [fall behind in scoring] a lot so … I think the hard thing is getting us to stop doing that because it started to bother us. I see playoffs as a new season for me to snap out of these bad habits.

The game very well could have been lost due to the turnover by A’ja Wilson that gave the ball back to Chicago, putting it into Vandersloot’s hands with the clock winding down. Wilson, Cambage and Kayla McBride had four turnovers apiece — 12 of the team’s 18 — while no Chicago player turned the ball over more than twice.

In the semifinals, Las Vegas will need to be much better about protecting the ball and they will need to avoid double-digit deficits. The Mystics ended their regular season functioning like a well-oiled machine for six straight wins. They also finished the regular season first in the WNBA in points per game, assists per game, made three-pointers and three-point percentage. Thus, Hamby’s heroics will only go so far. Any team that falls behind against the Mystics will struggle to catch up.

The Aces tip off in Game 1 of the semifinals against the Mystics on Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2).