LAS VEGAS — It was a WNBA All-Star Game in which the one of the smallest players, Indiana’s 5-foot-7 guard Erica Wheeler, stole the show with seven 3-pointers, 25 points and an emotional MVP award.
One of the biggest, Phoenix’s 6-9 Brittney Griner, dunked three times. And the host Las Vegas Aces put on quite a party for the best for the WNBA.
Team A’ja Wilson — the injured Aces star wasn’t able to play but was still involved in all the festivities — beat Team Elena Delle Donne 129-126, a WNBA All-Star record for combined points.
Here are some of the top takeaways from the WNBA’s celebration at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Indiana’s Erica Wheeler, undrafted out of college, sought to put on a show in her All-Star debut. She succeeded.
1. Don’t stop believing
Wheeler went undrafted out of Rutgers, and then later was cut from Atlanta before being able to stick in the WNBA, first with New York and then for the past four seasons with Indiana. While Wheeler was still in college, her mother died from cancer. She has had to work hard to get to where she has gotten.
Saturday was a huge reward for her perseverance. She cradled the All-Star MVP trophy and wept after the game, and the rest of the WNBA players teared up along with her. Wheeler said the praise and support she gets from her peers means the world to her.
“My main goal today was, ‘I want to be unforgettable once we play this game.’ And I think I did that,” she said.
Captain Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics said all the players could relate to Wheeler, even if they had easier paths to the WNBA and the All-Star Game.
“Just looking where she’s come from,” Delle Donne said. “And probably at times feeling like she was the only one who believed in herself. That’s why she’s here. She continued to believe, and she’s worked so hard and you can see it in her game from year to year.”
Brittney Griner, who had three dunks Saturday, hopes she can spark the Mercury in the season’s second half.
2. Will Mercury be rising?
Phoenix was the preseason pick by many to win the WNBA title this season, but right now the Mercury are in seventh place at 10-8. However, Griner said she feels confident that they can make a run after the All-Star break.
Don’t necessarily expect any more dunks from her — although you never know. She got her 11th of her WNBA career in regulation games back in June. This All-Star weekend, she dunked while competing during Friday’s skills challenge, and then three times in the first half of Saturday’s game.
Griner said with veteran guard Diana Taurasi out all but one game this season after back surgery, she has had to be more of a leader on court for the Mercury. She is averaging 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds.
“I think I’ve gotten a little bit smarter as I get older,” said Griner, who had 16 points and nine rebounds in the All-Star Game for Team Delle Donne. “I’ve worked on my outside game a little bit, but it’s not where I want it. Luckily, I’m still improving.”
Taurasi was at the All-Star Game talking about the new USA Basketball program she is part of. She said she’s getting closer to returning to the Mercury. The only game she has played was on July 12.
“My back feels great,” Taurasi said. “I’m pretty much 100 percent recovered. Now I’m just going through my own training camp two months after the team. I gave it a go in Connecticut two weeks ago, and I was just not ready. I’m really close.”
The whole Chicago Sky team showed up to cheer on their All-Stars, including married couple Allie Quigley, left, and Courtney Vandersloot.
3. Sky ready for a surge
The Chicago Sky had three All-Stars — Diamond DeShields, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot — but the rest of the team made it to Las Vegas to support them. And to enjoy Vegas, of course.
The Sky’s All-Stars all did their thing here. DeShields won the skills contest on Friday, and then had 13 points and five rebounds in the game for Team Wilson. Quigley had 14 points, making four of her specialty 3-pointers, also for Wilson’s team. A couple of Quigley’s 3-pointers came with Team Delle Donne’s Vandersloot, both her teammate and her wife, guarding. And Vandersloot, the passing whiz, had eight assists.
The Sky have missed the playoffs the past two years, but right now they are tied with the Los Angeles Sparks in fourth place at 11-8. With such a show of team camaraderie here, the Sky are ready for a big push through rest of the season.
“I think we’re all thinking the same thing: We have such a huge opportunity,” Quigley said. “We’ve pinpointed exactly our weaknesses. Let’s try to minimize them if we can. I think we can be one of the most exciting teams to watch.”
4. Odds and ends from Saturday’s scorefest
Somewhat lost Saturday was the player who made more shots than anybody: Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike. She was 11-of-15 from the field for 22 points for Team Delle Donne. And her Sparks teammate, Chelsea Gray, had the most assists with 10 for Team Wilson.
All-Star games are not known for their defense, of course, but there actually were a couple of blocked shots Saturday: one by Washington’s Delle Donne and one by Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, who was also on Team Delle Donne.
There usually aren’t many fouls called, either, but there were five free throws shot — all by Team Delle Donne. Two were by the captain herself, and three were from Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner.
It was the second season of this format in which the top two All-Star vote-getters were team captains. For the second season in a row, Delle Donne’s team lost.
Though she didn’t play because of injury, captain A’ja Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces proved to be successful All-Star hosts.
5. Vegas was a major hit
There was universal agreement on this: Las Vegas, which is in its second season with the Aces, was a top-notch WNBA All-Star Game venue. From the ever-present signage promoting the game (not just at Mandalay Bay resort, but all over The Strip), to the pregame and in-game entertainment, to the fan fest, everything was done in a big way. And the players said they loved the experience.
Aces All-Stars Wilson, Liz Cambage and Kayla McBride all have been talking up the benefits of playing in Las Vegas and the support of owner MGM Resorts International. On a weekend when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert presided over her first official event — she took over on July 17 — the Aces showed themselves to be a model franchise.
“This community has embraced us since day one,” said McBride, who had 13 points for Team Wilson. “This was our chance to show out.”