Dream defeat back-to-back WNBA champion Aces

Allisha Gray scored 24 for the Dream. AP file photo

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Allisha Gray scored 24 for the Dream. AP file photo

With the back-to-back WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces in town, the Atlanta Dream knew they had to play their best basketball.

The Dream were up to the task on Friday when they played strong defense early and outscored Vegas 50-40 in the second half to take a 78-74 win at Gateway Center Arena.

Prior to tipoff, Aerial Powers said Atlanta getting off to a good start was imperative in order to hand Vegas (4-2) its second loss.

“With the Aces you have to come out strong from the top,” Powers said. “The first [thing] in mind is coming out strong and hard.

Atlanta, which has won two in a row to improve to 4-2, did exactly that. The Dream set the tone on defense in the first quarter by holding the Aces to a season-low 11 points. Atlanta landed the first punch by taking a 7-0 lead -- its largest of the game.

“[It was] a great defensive effort by this team,” Dream coach Tanisha Wright said. “I’ve been challenging them big time to start defending at a higher level and I thought tonight we did a really good job of executing.”

Both teams had shooting struggles early as Vegas made four of its first 19 shots from the field and Atlanta shot 4 of 20. In the second quarter, Vegas shot 50% compared to Atlanta’s 43.8% and the Aces outscored the Dream 23-18 to take a 34-28 lead into halftime.

The Aces built on their lead to begin the third quarter with a 6-0 lead to take a 40-28 lead -- their largest of the night -- when A’ja Wilson scored her 15th point on a made free throw.

After going down by 12, the Dream stormed back and outscored Vegas 50-34 down the stretch. Wilson, who finished with a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds, had her five-game double-double streak broken.

“I think the biggest thing was coach [Wright] just telling us [to play] one-on-one defense,” Cheyenne Parker-Tyus said about guarding Wilson. “We really tried to take in that every possession. Obviously she’s A’ja Wilson. She’s [going to] score. But we definitely made it harder on her.”

Overall, the Aces and Dream shot 36% but a glaring number was Vegas’ 6 of 21 shooting performance from long range. Kelsey Plum was 3 of 12 from deep. Both teams forced 12 turnovers but the Dream scored 19 points off turnovers compared to the Aces’ 14.

“They played as one,” Wright said of the defense. “They helped each other. They knew where their help was supposed to be. I thought we did a great job of making multiple efforts. When [Vegas] swung the ball, when they attacked, we had help. Somebody helped the helper. That’s all you can ask for. They’re a really good team. They’re the champions. Everything goes through them this year.”

Allisha Gray provided a big chunk of Atlanta’s offense. Gray was 6 of 15 overall and 6 of 7 from long range to score a team-high 24 points. The six made 3-pointers were a career high in a game.

“I had to give a shoutout to [Parker-Tyus] and Naz [Hillmon],” Gray said. “In the first half I kind of struggled and was in my head and frustrated. [Parker-Tyus] pulled me to the side and was like ‘You know what to do. You can do this.’ Before coming out for the second half [Hillmon] was like ‘Everything is [going to] be all right.’”

Rhyne Howard was Atlanta’s other scorer in double figures. She was 5 of 13 from the field and 4 of 6 from the line for 16 points.

Free throws were crucial in a four-point game and Atlanta made 26 of 29 compared to Vegas 18 of 20. Atlanta shot just four free throws in the first half before spending much of the second half at the line. The game was tied at 53 after three quarters and the Dream made 13 of 15 fourth-quarter free throws.

“We had four free throws in the first half,” Wright said. “We talked to them about getting downhill [and] attacking closeouts. [What] we didn’t do in the first half very great was move the ball side-to-side. I think in the second half we did a much better job of moving the ball side-to-side which allowed us to get opportunities.”

Powers, who came off the bench, injected some late life into the Gateway Center Arena crowd when she and Vegas’ Jackie Young were called for a double technical foul.

“[Powers] is high-energy,” Wright said. “We know that. Today she came out and really changed the momentum of the game with that energy. She has the ability to affect the game in different ways with not just her scoring. I thought today she focused on trying to affect the game in a different way.”

Powers and the Atlanta bench accounted for 16 points as eight different players scored. Powers and Crystal Dangerfield led the Atlanta’s bench with seven points each. Bench players also tallied 11 of Atlanta’s 38 rebounds. The Dream won the battle of the boards 38-34.

“It’s all about trust,” Gray said. “When I come out I can trust my teammates to keep it going and to pick up the slack that I left on the court.”

Atlanta has another tough home matchup on Sunday as the undefeated Connecticut Sun come to town for a 3 p.m. game.

“[We have] to rest up and have short-term memory,” Wright said. “This one is over but take that energy and that feeling and [use it to] help put us in position to be able to win games.”