LAS VEGAS – First there was hoopla. Then there were hoops.
The Las Vegas Aces made a splashy, memorable debut in Sin City on Sunday, a day filled with celebration, celebrities, smoke and spotlights, and plenty of drama on the floor.
A crowd of 4,467 watched the Aces first game in their new hometown and while the Seattle Storm spoiled the party with a 105-98 win over Las Vegas, the Aces made it clear that they are here to both entertain and compete.
“I just really wanted to put on a good show for our fans,” said Aces rookie star A’ja Wilson, who finished with a career-high 27 points to go with eight rebounds. “We need them. They are going to be that 6th man for us, the atmosphere and the cheering and being so loud that we can’t hear each other. We want that. That’s perfect for us.”
The Aces got that Sunday. They got a fabulous opening day in every way, but one. They wanted the win.
Seattle shot 52.2 percent from the field for the game and got three strong performances out of Breanna Stewart (23 points), Jewell Loyd (20 points) and Natasha Howard (21 points) to push their record to 3-1 this season. The Storm, who led by as many as 19 points, withstood a Las Vegas charge late, as the Aces cut the lead to 98-94 on a Nia Coffey 3-pointer with 1:39 to go. But five points by Sue Bird down the stretch, including a dagger 3-pointer with 33.7 to go, sealed the Storm’s third straight win.
“In the first half, we were the aggressors and I think maybe they had some nerves with their first game and everything and in the second half we were inconsistent and they made a push,” Stewart said. “We executed down the stretch.”
But the Aces are not an 0-3 team hanging its head.
“I think the sky is the limit for this team,” Wilson said. “This is our building year. We have a new coach, a new location, new everything. We are writing our new book.”
And Sunday’s home debut was a chapter all of its own.
Las Vegas Aces logos were all over Vegas on this holiday weekend, from the video signboards on the strip, to the casino floors and the gift shops selling team merchandise in several bustling resorts.
Two and a half hours before tip-off on Sunday, fans were starting to gather near the Mandalay Bay Events Center, shooting hoops for prizes and wearing team gear.
Inside the arena, the video board was running through a series of welcome messages from celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg, Carlos Santana, Ray Romano and Mario Lopez. Head coach Bill Laimbeer came out to view the atmosphere as his players prepared to begin their warmups.
Kelsey Plum was warming up when she was asked about how nice the arena, remodeled specifically for the Aces, had turned out. Team banners, which went halfway to the top of the arena, were up, balloons out, the Fan Zone ready to fill up.
“Beyond nice,” she responded with a smile before dribbling away.
Doors opened to fans an hour before tipoff, the arena steadily filling. When the Aces returned to the floor, they ran through a tunnel of young fans, and were introduced on a stage at the far end of the arena complete with smoke and spotlights.
The stars were out to greet the Aces. Boyz 2 Men sang the national anthem. Ludacris took his seat courtside. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley flew in to see A’ja Wilson’s home debut. Raiders owner Mark Davis, whose team bought a full-page ad in Sunday’s local newspaper to welcome the team, was in the house.
By the time, UFC announcer Bruce Buffer called for tip-off, the Aces were ready to settle into their new home.
“It was surreal,” said Nia Coffey. “I can’t believe this is our home gym, it’s so beautiful. The crowd was absolutely amazing, the energy they had, I don’t think we’ve experienced that before. It will help us play better. It was such a beautiful thing to see.”
Seattle is positioning itself early as one of the top teams in the league with its experience, depth and balance.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, is getting closer to full strength and figuring out what kind of team it can become. Sunday was the first time the Aces played with guards Kayla McBride and Kelsey Plum, who returned to the States earlier this week after finishing their overseas season in Turkey.
“I know we are young and some of us just got here and are just learning the offense, but once we have some time, I know we are going to be a better team,” Plum said.
Laimbeer said that he told his team he was proud of the way they fought back after being down by 19 points.
“We are learning. I keep preaching, that we have to learn first,” Laimbeer said. “We have a rookie in A’ja who is going to be a focal point for everyone. Nia, I threw her in the fire, and she’s performing well. How long a learning experience this is going to be, I don’t know. We are making progress.”
The key player still missing from the floor now is guard Moriah Jefferson, who is still rehabbing her offseason knee surgery and getting closer to her return.
Jefferson has been living in Las Vegas since January, getting to know the community. She said she was excited to see all the hard work of putting this team on the floor finally come together.
“I was here when there was no floor on the court and these seats weren’t in here. And now look at this,” Jefferson said. “To see so many people coming together to support us is great. I’d rather be out on the floor, but I’ll do what I can to help.”
WNBA President Lisa Borders said the Aces ownership group, MGM Resorts International, has “exceeded expectations” in terms of preparing for the team’s debut season.
“We knew they were going to be good and it looks like it’s going to be great,” Borders said. “They said they were going to be fully behind this team, and we’ve gotten all of that from them and more.”