|Potential playoff bye at stake for Dream against Aces|
The Las Vegas Aces lost seven of their first eight games and then dropped five in a row in August after the All-Star break. Yet they still had a chance to make the postseason until losing to the Dallas Wings on Friday night.
Now the Aces close out their first season since moving from San Antonio against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday in their finale at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
"We played pretty good basketball. So did they," Aces coach Bill Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the Aces lost to the Wings, allowing Dallas to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot Friday night. "Still, I'm proud of the way we competed. We gave it our best shot. Came up short."
If the Aces (14-19) had been able to stop the league's leading scorer, Liz Cambage, they might have landed the final spot in the postseason. Cambage collected 43 points and 13 boards for the Wings, who snapped a nine-game losing streak.
"She's a beast on the block. That's who she is," Aces rookie A'ja Wilson said. "You know the ball is going there, but because of her size and because of how strong she is, it's tough to guard."
With Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride, the future is bright for the Aces. Despite the disappointment of losing Friday, Laimbeer has instilled a winning culture.
"Nobody expected us to be in this position," McBride told the Review-Journal. "I think for the most part we really created our own identity. We've been writing our own book this whole season starting 1-7 and at least trying to get to the eighth spot in our playoffs in the best league in the world. It says a lot about the young talent we have, and the coach and the fans."
Beating the Dream will send the Aces into the offseason on a high note. Winning won't be easy, though, because Atlanta has plenty to play for.
The Dream (22-11) had won six straight and 14 of 15 before losing in Phoenix on Friday night. Atlanta is tied for the second seed with Washington entering Sunday. If Atlanta wins or both teams lose, the Dream secure the second seed and the double bye into the semifinals. If they lose and Washington wins, the Mystics claim the spot.
If the Dream secure the second seed, they'll do it without star Angel McCoughtry, who will be cheering from the sideline after tearing ligaments in her left knee last week.
"This team is really together with Angel," Dream coach Nikki Collen said. "You have to take the mentality that it's the next man up. You have to do it collectively, and since we've lost her for the season, it's been a collective effort. We certainly miss her in big moments."
Dream forward Tiffany Hayes said she believes that she and her teammates have the mental toughness to power past losing McCoughtry.
"Just keep trusting our pass and getting our defense right," Hayes said.
The Dream beat the Aces 87-83 on June 8 in Las Vegas and 109-00 on Aug. 7 in Atlanta. The 109 points and 14 blocks in that game were franchise bests.
Elizabeth Williams led the Dream in scoring and finished with the best field-goal percentage in a game in team history as she went 11 of 12.
Tiffany Hayes posted her 12th 20-plus point game with 21 points.
That win also clinched a postseason spot for the Dream in Collen's first season.
"I love what I do and I like my team and I think we have good pieces," Collen said. "My challenge is to get them ready for every game. I'm always going to put pressure on myself to be prepared."