Kiah Stokes and her teammates used to drive from the UConn campus in Storrs to Mohegan Sun Arena to attend WNBA games as often as they could during summer sessions. With the goal of playing at the next level in mind, the former Husky center remembers sitting in the stands and envisioning herself in that position one day.
Fast forward nearly a decade and Stokes was playing in that same building as she and the Las Vegas Aces captured the 2022 WNBA Championship. They defeated the Connecticut Sun, 78-71, in Game 4 to take the best-of-five finals series 3-1.
As the final buzzer sounded, Stokes threw her hands up and ran down the court to embrace her teammates. Shortly after the trophy presentation, the Aces danced and celebrated in the visitors locker room, popping and spraying so much champagne in the process that it coated about an inch of the floor.
"In college, it's the hardest thing you've done, and now that I'm a pro it's the hardest thing I've done," Stokes said standing in the lively locker room wearing a "2022 WNBA Champs" t-shirt and hat with a bottle in hand. "It's incredible, it's awesome. … I'm happy. My teammates are excited. We worked really hard for this and to have all our hard work all season pay off it just means the world."
Stokes played 27 minutes in Game 4, finishing with five rebounds, two points and a steal. The stat line doesn't jump off the page, but her teammates and coach will be quick to tell you Stokes' impact for the Aces goes beyond stats. Championship teams come together when everyone knows their role. That's something Stokes learned while winning three national titles at UConn from 2011 to 2015, and it's how she excelled this season.
"She's just been so solid," Kelsey Plum said. "Just really proud [of her] to come in and step up in those big moments. And we're asking her to do a lot to guard Jonquel [Jones] and all this stuff. But man, it was really cool to see her respond today."
Stokes started all 10 games for the Aces this postseason after coming off the bench for the majority of the regular season. During the the last week of the regular season Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon decided to take Dearica Hamby out of the starting lineup and instead inserted Stokes alongside stars A'ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. Stokes went from playing 15.4 minutes a night and averaging 2.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game to an output of 3.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in 25.9 minutes per game in the playoffs.
"Finally had a bright light come on somewhere," Hammon joked at practice this week about the decision to play Stokes more. "You got to have those role players that know exactly what their role is in and excel and star in their role. Kiah does what this team needs her to do.
"Now she could go on another team and probably do much more. But on this team, whatever we ask of her — defend, rebound, set screens — she does to the best of her ability, and it's helped us win a lot of games."
Playing at UConn under coach Geno Auriemma showed Stokes how to succeed in this position. She had to find where she could impact the game in limited playing time alongside a talented group featuring Breanna Stewart, Stefanie Dolson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. In the process, she averaged at least 6.8 rebounds in her junior and senior seasons, was named the 2014-15 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and set a program single-season record with 147 blocks. She still ranks fourth in school history with 325 career blocks.
"I go at Kiah hard at times, and she just responds," Hammon said. "If you got a UConn player you know they've gone through the fire. You know they can handle truths."
Hammon said she often wonders if she was too tough on players after the fact, but Stokes will promptly tell her, "You're nice compared to Geno." Stokes joked that while Hammon gets mad, she isn't the yeller she claims to be when stacked against how things were with Auriemma in college. She does see a lot of similarities between the two coaches, though, such as how they both demand perfection from their players and push them to compete to the best of their abilities, along with their emphasis on preparation.
Though it may have looked easy from the outside as the Huskies won three national championships (2013, '14, '15) during Stokes' time with the program, including an undefeated 40-0 season in 2014, she'll be quick to tell you it was anything but. The practices were always harder than the games. On one occasion, Auriemma made the Huskies compete in a drill with a five-player lineup going up against eight practice players.
"Coach Auriemma would put into situations that we thought were impossible," Stokes said. "He's just like, 'Figure it out. Find a way to win.' And at the beginning of the drill we're like, 'There's no way we can do this.' And then by the end he's not going to stop until you can get the drill correct, and we did it."
Preparation comes in a different form at the professional level. While the practices aren't as physically intense, there's a lot more emphasis on film and studying the game to be ready for a certain opponent. That's ramped up even more in the postseason, where teams have to win a series as opposed to a one-and-done NCAA Tournament game.
Stokes enjoyed being back on a team in championship-or-bust mode this season, in many ways similar to how things were when she was at UConn. She joined the Aces midway through the 2021 season after spending the first five-and a-half years of her career with the New York Liberty, who didn't make the postseason from 2018-20.
"Players have been in the league for 10-plus years without a ring and you don't realize how tough it really is," Stokes said ahead of Game 4. "So to finally actually get a chance to win a ring is just gonna be something special."
Stokes and the Aces did just that Sunday afternoon. Getting to lift a trophy in the state of Connecticut again made things even sweeter.
"I feel amazing. It's kind of like home," Stokes said. "The fans are awesome. It was a great arena, a great game and I'm just glad we pulled it out."
Lila Bromberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @LilaBBromberg on Twitter.
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