Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese once again show the rookies are all right

INDIANAPOLIS — Angel Reese sat alone on the visiting bench, smiling and chatting through a pregame TV interview. Outside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, thousands of fans in new gear waited to file in for the only game on the WNBA schedule this Saturday. It was a matinee moved into a sweeter TV spot without any same-time tip-offs. Even the NBA is on a mini break before the Finals.

Shortly afterward, fans would stream down to that same corner, pushing for autographs from No. 1 overall pick Caitlin Clark. The only cheers they’d offer during the opponents’ quick monotone introductions were for Reese.

But it was just another game on the schedule, Reese insisted to the large group of media huddled around her.

Sure. Like how the Elite Eight matchup two months ago was just another game.

The players may shy away from the hoopla, but the millions of fans tuning in at a historic rate refuse to. The Fever’s first of four games against the Sky this season is a rivalry renewed and one featuring their favorite collegiate face-off of Clark and Reese, the No. 7 overall pick.

Add in the professional debut of the Sky’s No. 3 overall pick, Kamilla Cardoso, who missed the first six games with a shoulder injury, and the rookies were the main attraction in the Fever’s 71-70 victory Saturday. It was their first home win of the season (2-8) and puts them briefly atop the Commissioner’s Cup standings. The Sky dropped to 3-4.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JUNE 01: Chicago Sky forward Angel Reese (5) and Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) fist bump before the opening jump ball on June 1, 2024, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Everywhere you looked there were superstars of the record-shattering 2023 and 2024 Final Fours who tipped the scales in women’s basketball. The connection map of matchups mirrored a Charlie conspiracy meme. The group represents the first generation of name, image, likeness deals in college and continues to lead the crest of interest in women’s basketball. The excitement has extended into the WNBA, which was already on its own years-long growth spurt.

“We've done a great job, being able to help elevate the game,” Reese said before the game.

Clark has a healthy perspective of the group that is helping the sport take a step forward.

“People that are being very impactful in this league from a young age, whether it’s Aliyah [Boston], whether it’s myself, whether it’s Angel …” Clark told a small group of reporters after Friday’s practice. “And I think Kamilla will have the same effect when she really gets out there and kind of finds her groove. I think it’s fun. It’s cool to see the rookie class and how they’re doing.”

In their first meeting, Clark and Reese each shined at what they do best. Clark hit two early 3-pointers to bring the home crowd up in what have been rare roars during a tough start to the season. She went cold afterward to finish with 11 points, shooting 4-of-11 and 2-of-9 from deep. But she packed the stats again with eight rebounds, six assists and a steal. Multiple times she delivered dizzying passes, including one in transition for an acrobatic Kelsey Mitchell and-1 layup.

Clark credited a defensive stop, a glaring issue for the Fever that improved against the Sky, for starting the play.

“Those are energizing team plays, and I think that's definitely a moment we kind of needed at that point,” Clark said. “Kelsey made a really impressive play to finish it.”

Reese scored eight points (2-of-9 from the floor) with one assist and a steal, but brought in 13 rebounds as the Sky won the battle of the glass by 10. Her eight offensive rebounds were a franchise rookie record.

“The thing about her is she's been so dominant in what she's done ever since we played in high school,” Clark said.

Another player Clark made sure to say she has respect for? Cardoso, who gave Iowa matchup problems in their Final Four meetings and that continued against the Fever. She was on a minutes restriction, but immediately made her presence known in the first quarter with two putbacks off offensive rebounds.

“You can’t teach 6-7,” Reese said in reference to Cardoso’s height.

In 18 minutes, Cardoso scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, the best clip of any rookie on the floor. She had six rebounds, but five personal fouls. A couple came from guarding Boston, her former South Carolina teammate.

The two embraced ahead of the matchup, which Cardoso targeted weeks ago as her return. Boston and Victaria Saxton, a Fever reserve from South Carolina, had cheered her up in early May when they saw her last at the “Full Court Press” docuseries premiere in Indianapolis that featured Clark and Cardoso.

Of course, Boston said, they didn’t expect at the time the moment for which they were telling Cardoso to be patient would come against them. Boston also drew a couple of fouls posting up Cardoso, her former backup at South Carolina.

The rookies were the headliners, but the more distant collegiate superstars delivered the determining show. Boston’s and-1 with 1:19 remaining gave the Fever enough room to pull out a victory. The 2023 No. 1 pick and reigning Rookie of the Year had 10 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two assists.

“That was huge right there at the end,” Sides said.

NaLyssa Smith, the Fever’s No. 2 overall pick in 2022, kept the scoring pace for Indiana with 17 points, one off Mitchell’s team-high 18. Chennedy Carter, a 2020 lottery pick from Texas A&M known collegiately for scoring a record 34 points against Team USA, led the Sky with 19 points and six assists off the bench. She shouldered Clark on an inbound play that could have been reviewed for a foul upgrade.

The league’s hottest ticket of the week delivered for the sold-out crowd of 17,274, which saw a contest that came one free throw from likely going to overtime. In the waning seconds of the final possession, Smith launched for a nearly loose ball by Marina Mabrey and fouled Mabrey, who missed the first but hit the second.

It was the fourth game of at least 15,000 fans at home for the Fever, and the 82,857 season total has already eclipsed the 2023 20-game home season total attendance of 81,336. The Clark Effect continues, as does the league-wide rookie effect.

The group has had a large impact on ticket sales already this season. Saturday’s game was the hottest ticket ($155 average price) on record for the Sky dating to 2017, when Vivid Seats began keeping records. It beat out Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals ($104) when the Sky and hometown star Candace Parker clinched the title over Phoenix. Average Sky ticket prices increased 123% after drafting Reese, according to Vivid Seats.

Every rookie matchup draws increased attention. Clark and Reese already have each faced Sparks' No. 2 pick Cameron Brink and Storm second-round pick Nika Mühl, who did well defensively against Clark in the UConn-Iowa Final Four game.

Clark’s former teammate, Kate Martin, is playing significant minutes for the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces. Alissa Pili, the Utah star forward and No. 8 pick, lit it up with 20 points in 15 minutes for the Minnesota Lynx on Friday night.

“You feel like you're a part of their journey to getting to enjoy that,” Clark said of the rookie class. “I would say more than anything, it's like we're on a process together and like we're almost sharing each other's moments with each other.”

There will be more, and none of the games will be just another on the schedule.