May 18, 2024

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Welcome to the WNBA: Caitlin Clark’s regular-season debut is no easy feat

Welcome to the WNBA: Caitlin Clark’s regular-season debut is no easy feat

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Welcome to the WNBA. Don’t say Diana Taurasi didn’t try to warn everyone.

Caitlin Clark isn’t in Iowa anymore, even if the atmosphere of the game gave that impression at Mohegan Sun Arena. And if the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas didn’t make that clear in the first few minutes, DeWanna Bonner completed the job in the final minutes.

The 15-year-old veteran stomped and stood with his chest crossed for nearly a minute after he made a three-pointer to push the lead back to 16 and running down the clock for any Clarke’s heroics. A few feet back, Thomas let out one of her many clarifying screams of the night. The sold-out crowd of 8,910 — one short of the 2023 season high set by the Sun — answered the call as it did again in the final seconds when Dijonai Carrington got them going to celebrate Connecticut’s 92-71 win.

No generational talent, no matter how great she was in college or would eventually become a pro, was going to come into the home of a veteran team and light it up in her debut. The Connecticut Sun is a franchise accustomed to the smear of disrespect, and they’ve built an entire identity around it. For months, all they heard was how Clark would set the league on fire, win an MVP award and one day surpass the all-time scoring record.

The only record set by a rookie on opening night was the Indiana Fever franchise record for turnovers (10) – also the most in a WNBA debut. The team total was 25 points, more than the quiet 20 Clarke scored in her first official WNBA game on ineffective 5-of-15 shooting (4-of-11 from 3).

Connecticut Sun guard Dijonae Carrington (21) fouls Indiana Fever guard Kaitlin Clark (22) during the third quarter of a WNBA basketball game, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hale)

“Connecticut came out and punched us in the mouth tonight,” Indiana Fever coach Christy Side said. “That’s who they are. The Connecticut Sun is a good team.

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“I thought our possession the first two games was good, then they started running and we really struggled to score,” Clark said. “So I will definitely agree with the coach.”

To put it more bluntly: reality hits hard. That’s all Taurasi was saying.

Clark said her first impressions of her first game were all about physicality. Enter Thomas, a welcome-to-the-league moment that has fans excited since the schedule was released and Clark announced she would enter the WNBA draft. Thomas paid the veteran compliments early, drawing two quick fouls from Clark that forced the guard to the bench for half of the first quarter. The crowd cheered, and Thomas smiled as she made her way to the free throw line.

Given the huge amount of attention Clarke was drawing as night fell, the spotlight shifted to Thomas’ shoulders and her pouty lips. The MVP runner-up picked up where she left off with a 13-point, 13-assist and 10-rebound performance after averaging nearly triple-double last season and missing out on the second-closest MVP vote in league history.

“For me, personally, I felt like a lot of people felt like last season was a fluke and it won’t happen again this season,” said Bonner, who moved into fifth place on the all-time scoring list on Tuesday. “So to [Thomas] To set the tone and say, ‘Yes, that wasn’t a fluke, I’m back,’ that’s great of her.”

Thomas, an 11-year veteran, broke through a defender to rebound her shot early in the fourth, and when Sun coach Stephanie White didn’t like the guard confrontations, she put Thomas in her position to pin Clark on the perimeter. . The fourth quarter was the most aggressive and successful for Clark until the vet said so.

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“WNBA fans who have been around a while know exactly the type of player she is,” White said. “In order to introduce it to a new audience, [to] Introduce her versatility, competitive spirit and the way she approaches the game [and] Her professionalism? That was great. “It was one of the most exciting things for me that I wanted to happen tonight.”

Millions followed Clark and her rookie class from the college ranks to the WNBA, where players of Thomas’ caliber are on every roster. She’s done it all and been everywhere, as she has throughout her career. But it was Carrington, a three-year reserve who moved into a starting role this year, who gave Clark the best results.

“It was automatic because that’s what she does. She’s an elite defender,” White said of the game.

Clarke fed Aliyah Boston the Fever’s first points of the year on the opening possession — a task Clarke said earlier in the day she wanted to complete — before the action sank. Clark missed her first three attempts and didn’t score the first points of her career until the 5:24 mark of the second quarter. It was a play I predicted two hours ago.

“Honestly, what I thought was, ‘It would be nice to get a layup as my first basket,'” Clark told reporters before the game. “Why don’t you get a high percentage to start, right?”

Those are becoming few and far between for everyone against the Sun’s elite defense. Clark’s first projected 3 landed a 26-footer with 30 seconds left in the first half. She notched three more goals in the contest, some in response to The Sun’s scoring, but none to launch a series of Iowa State traditions. Clark added three assists and stayed away from more foul trouble with two more in the next three quarters.

NaLyssa Smith continued her strong preseason showing with 13 points as the Fever’s only other scorer, but was 5 of 12. Boston once again struggled to find shots and was held to four points (2 of 6 shooting). Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Mitchell, who came off the bench in her return from an ankle injury that sidelined her in the preseason, each scored eight goals. The Fever attempted 50 shots to the Sun’s 66.

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Fever holds promise, but that potential takes longer than 10 practices and a couple of preseason warmups. Both sides began their day by describing the team’s May schedule as “unbelievable” in terms of strength, and by the end of the night maintained it as “unbelievable.” The team rented its house around midnight Tuesday to prepare for its home opener against tournament runner-up New York Liberty on Thursday. The Fever heads to Brooklyn for a rematch on Saturday.

The truth is, there are no real days off in this league. Strong opponents are coming faster than Clark’s 3s right now. There is no time for the group to rehearse, leaving film as the main option.

“The biggest challenge for me, and this is what I told them, is you don’t have the time to sit in this game and stay angry or upset,” Sides said. “We have to move forward. We have to get to New York, and we have to figure out what we did tonight so we can do it better.

Clark and Smith echoed this sentiment. “It’s back to the drawing board,” Smith added, “and they have to execute like professionals.” They weren’t the ones who said it would be easy.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m going to do some great things, but it might take a while,” Clark said at the morning shoot. “If things aren’t perfect right away, or if a game isn’t as amazing as I want it to be, give yourself grace, keep learning, and keep getting better from it.”