A ticket to a winner-takes-first-prize Game 5 was right there for the Liberty to grab Wednesday night inside Barclays Center.
The momentum was gusting their way in the WNBA Finals. After the two large losses in Vegas, they rebounded with Sunday’s 14-point Game 3 win in Brooklyn. And now Game 4 was also being played in their loud, supportive house, “a home-court advantage at its finest,” as Courtney Vandersloot put it beforehand.
Plus, Las Vegas was missing two starters — All-Star point guard/2022 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and center Kiah Stokes — due to foot injuries. The defending champion Aces had been leaning on just six of their 10 available players. Now they were down to eight overall.
There were no money-back guarantees, but the Liberty had a real shot to tie the series and continue pursuit of their first championship via that ultimate showdown in Vegas Friday night.
And it didn’t happen.
The Liberty threw away a 12-point third-quarter lead and their ticket. Vandersloot missed a final shot, capping an airtight finish. MVP A’ja Wilson delivered 24 points and 16 rebounds, and Las Vegas emerged with a 70-69 win despite their losses to take the series three games to one.
“Of course, we’re disappointed,” coach Sandy Brondello said. “It’s tough. … But credit to Vegas. We fought, but it wasn’t our best game.”
The Aces became the first repeat champs since the Los Angeles Sparks beat the Liberty in the 2002 Finals.
“A lot of people counted us out,” Wilson said. “A lot of people said ‘Liberty in five.’ That fueled us. … For us to do it shorthanded, it’s amazing.”
Vandersloot led the Liberty with 19 points. Breanna Stewart shot 3-for-17 and had just 10 points. Jonquel Jones had only six points.
Asked before practice Wednesday how you take an emotional hit like the Aces did with the injuries during the Finals and get back up, coach Becky Hammon said, “Got to be a vampire. No emotion. Just business.”
Before the game, Hammon said the Liberty “are explosive offensively. … We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at them, see what sticks.”
Forward Alysha Clark, the WNBA Sixth Player of the Year, moved into the starting lineup. So did Cayla George, who replaced Stokes. George finished with 11 points, and Clark had 10 points and eight rebounds.
It was 64-64 and then Jackie Young drove for two and hit two free throws for a four-point Vegas lead with 2:04 to go. Stewart missed a three and Wilson hit a turnaround 8-footer to make it 70-64 with 1:27 left.
Vandersloot cut it in half with a three, then came up with a steal. Sabrina Ionescu nailed a jumper from near the foul line, and it was down to one with 41.7 on the clock.
Hammon called for time, and the building was rocking.
Stewart blocked a shot by Wilson in close. The Liberty had their chance.
They called a timeout in the frontcourt with 8.8 seconds left. Brondello wanted Stewart to take the last shot.
“I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trust her,” Brondello said. "It just didn’t work out today.”
Ionescu inbounded the ball to Stewart, but she was quickly double-teamed. She passed it out to Laney, who fed Vandersloot for an 18-footer on the left baseline. But it was long, sailing over the rim.
“I was just trying to get it up on the rim,” Vandersloot said.
It was Aces by two at the start of the fourth after a 9-0 run. Young then drove for a basket and hit a three in a 7-2 run. So it was a 16-2 burst that opened it up to 60-53. Brondello called for time.
Betnijah Laney responded with a drive and Ionescu followed with a three. It was 60-58. Hammon called for time.
But soon Laney made a layup, and it was tied with 5:26 to go. The Aces didn’t wilt.
“They just found a way,” Brondello said.
The Liberty had led by nine at the break, then opened it up to 44-32 2 1/2 minutes into the third.
Las Vegas kept pushing behind Wilson and Clark. They combined for all the points in a 9-0 run to close the quarter. The Aces took a 53-51 lead into the fourth.
Actor Jason Sudeikis was shown on the video board between quarters. He got up and raised his arms, trying to get the Liberty fans going. But he couldn’t get the Liberty to do enough to win.
In the end, there was sadness etched on their faces.
Asked for her level of disappointment, Stewart said, “High.”
Vandersloot added, “It’s very high.”