CHICAGO -- In what many consider a potential WNBA Finals matchup, the Las Vegas Aces won the second annual WNBA Commissioner's Cup championship game with a 93-83 victory over the host Chicago Sky on Tuesday at Wintrust Arena.
But it was Chelsea Gray who was named the game's MVP after posting 19 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Gray, the sole Vegas starter not to be named an All-Star and play in the game in Chicago earlier this month, instead experienced her own special moment at Wintrust this week and was embraced by her teammates upon being revealed as MVP.
"At the end of the day, you can talk about the numbers and this and that, but she wins games, and that to me should be the most important thing," Plum said of Gray. "She's the MVP tonight, but she has been leading our team the whole season. I feel like, to be honest, she doesn't get the love and credit she deserves, and I'm really, really glad that people saw that tonight."
Despite Tuesday's loss, the defending WNBA champion Sky (21-7) remain in first place in the WNBA standings and the Aces (20-8) in second with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season. The teams, the only two to clinch playoff spots so far, have topped the standings most of the season.
Each player on the Aces was awarded $30,000, with Gray taking home an extra $5,000 for being named MVP. Each Sky player earned $10,000. Coinbase, the presenting sponsor of the Cup, is also awarding an additional cryptocurrency bonus of $5,000 for each player in the championship game.
The Cup also featured $165,000 donated to charities across all 12 franchise markets.
Tuesday's game was eerily similar to the Aces' loss to the Sky in late June, when the Aces blew a 28-point lead, giving the Sky the largest come-from-behind win in league history. This time around, Vegas stayed the course through Chicago's comeback effort to take care of business.
The Aces rocked the Sky back on their heels from the get-go, scoring the first 13 points of the game and jumping ahead by as many as 23 in the second quarter. Chicago finally found a groove and started hitting its outside shots, with an Emma Meesseman 3 cutting the deficit to 12 in the final minute of the first half before Jackie Young's putback layup extended Vegas' lead back to 14 going into the break.
Kahleah Copper and Rebekah Gardner found success getting downhill to help the Sky pull within seven with less than 20 seconds remaining in the third, but Plum's 3 to make it a 10-point lead going into the final frame gave the Aces the momentum the rest of the way, allowing them to hold a double-figure lead most of the fourth quarter.
"We've had some slow starts against this team and had to claw our way out," Parker said on lessons the team learned in Tuesday's championship setting. "So I think it's more so not facing adversity; I think we're built for that. But it's not getting ourselves into it."
Coaches James Wade (Chicago) and Becky Hammon (Vegas), who both pointed to their experiences playing in similar "cups" overseas, said that they like how the WNBA has adopted an in-season tournament of its own.
"I think it's really interesting," Wade said before the game. "I think as time goes, as the tradition grows, you'll see more and more teams take pride in it, especially when you add the element of the charitable cause that you play for, it adds even more incentive. ... It gives you championship experience when it comes to playing in money games. I think it's good all the way around."
Since the All-Star break, the Aces have won six of their seven games behind a renewed focus on defense. The Sky shot 40.5% from the field against the Aces and just 20% from 3.
"We had a little bit of a coming-to-Jesus moment after All-Star," Hammon said. "I think the way we finished that last two and a half weeks before All-Star left a pretty bad taste in everybody's mouth. Right now, it's just all about defense. ... They've responded for the most part, I thought."
And while they celebrated Tuesday's win appropriately -- Hammon was seen on social media kicking off the champagne shower in the locker room, Gray brought a bottle into the room for postgame media, and Hammon's young son Cayden even made an appearance at the podium to sit alongside his mother and her players -- the Aces know this is only one step toward their larger ambitions.
"It's a game. We're happy to win it, obviously. But it's not the ultimate goal," Hammon said. "It's a nice little thing, and I want the girls to remember how it feels. I want them to remember how we got here, which is together, and playing with each other."