Aces open defense with record rout in 1st game without Hammon

SEATTLE -- Without head coach Becky Hammon, serving the first game of a two-game suspension, the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces set a league record for margin of victory in a season opener with their 105-64 win Saturday over the Seattle Storm.

"I think more so than anything, it's just a testament to how hard they continue to play," said acting coach Tyler Marsh. "There's never a feeling of satisfaction. We want to play to the best of our ability at all times until the clock hits zero. That's the standard we've tried to set on the court."

The 41-point margin was the largest ever in a WNBA team's opening game, per ESPN Stats & Information research, and also the largest defeat ever suffered by the Storm. That outcome made Marsh feel a lot better heading into his postgame chat with Hammon.

"I'm sure that this call will be a lot more pleasant than had things gone a different way tonight," he joked. "I think what you saw today was a team and a staff that wanted to get a win very badly for their head coach. We know who Becky is to us and who she's been for us. So the best thing we can do is come out and get this win for her."

On Tuesday, the WNBA announced a two-game suspension for Hammon for violating team and league policies for respect in the workplace in her comments to former Aces forward Dearica Hamby -- subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Sparks -- in connection with Hamby's recent pregnancy.

Las Vegas decided to split those two games among its coaching staff. Assistant Natalie Nakase, a Southern California native, will coach Thursday when the Aces visit the Los Angeles Sparks. Marsh drew the assignment for opening day in Seattle. After learning he would coach, Marsh made plans for his father, Donnie (an assistant at the University of Detroit Mercy), wife and son to travel for the game.

"My dad, he's been a college coach my whole life, and for him to be out here just to see me coach and for my wife and my son to be here, that's the sentimental part for me," Marsh said. "Outside of that, it's just an extreme level of gratefulness to the organization and to Coach [Hammon] for having that trust in me to do the job."

Hammon was able to help the Las Vegas staff craft a game plan in practice leading up to Saturday, but come gameday, the team was in Marsh's hands. He made sure not to deviate from how he operates as an assistant.

"I tried to approach it the same way," Marsh said. "It was key for me personally to come in and just be myself -- not trying to be Becky, because there's only one Becky Hammon. I think that was the message she was trying to communicate to me as well: just be yourself and let them go out and play. That's what I tried to do today."

For players, however, there was something special about the opportunity to spotlight a member of their coaching staff who typically operates behind the scenes. Although the win is officially credited to Hammon in the WNBA record books, the Aces celebrated by dousing Marsh with water in a postgame locker room celebration.

"When you have someone like Tyler, I don't think anyone sees the work that he does for us, and it is so incredibly awesome to see him get this win," two-time MVP A'ja Wilson said. "He was incredible through and through, always kept us level-headed. We have amazing assistants and the way that Tyler helped guide us to the win -- he was prepared, he had just prepared -- it was truly special. It was honestly a great day for us to start playing and get a win, but especially with Tyler as our head honcho today."

Marsh hadn't yet spoken to Hammon before meeting the media, but Wilson had, calling her head coach via FaceTime shortly after leaving the court.

"She knew we were in good hands, obviously, with Ty, but I just wanted to make sure we were on the right track," Wilson said. "She said she only yelled twice, so that's pretty big for us, because I'm pretty sure in real life she would have been yelling more than twice."

Even for a coach as demanding as Hammon, there wouldn't have been much to lament in a dominating performance by Las Vegas, which added to the championship core in free agency by signing two-time MVP Candace Parker to join the starting lineup and veteran starter Alysha Clark to come off the bench.

In contrast to a slow start in the season opener from the other co-favorite to win the 2023 title, the New York Liberty, the Aces already appeared to be in midseason form. Taking advantage of an inexperienced Storm team that lost former MVP Breanna Stewart to New York in free agency and saw legendary point guard Sue Bird retire since facing Las Vegas in last year's competitive semifinals series, the Aces built a double-digit lead midway through the second quarter and never looked back.

Led by 23 points apiece from Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, all five Las Vegas starters scored in double figures. So too did Clark off the bench. Meanwhile, just one Seattle player (holdover All-Star Jewell Loyd, who had 22) scored more than eight points.

As impressive as the new-look Aces appeared, Wilson indicated there's still work to be done integrating the team's new players.

"It's not easy," she said. "We've got newcomers that have to get used to the system. We ourselves as the core are still trying to get to know and jell with everyone. I think it's just going to come with time. I'm glad it looks easy, but it's actually definitely hard. We're going to communicate and make sure that we're just all on the same page and have that same goal."

That goal remains repeating as champions, something that hasn't been done in the WNBA since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002. Despite Hammon's absence, on Saturday Las Vegas took its first step toward that eventual outcome in dominating fashion.