Indiana Fever vs. Chicago Sky rivalry is gift that will keep on giving for WNBA

CHICAGO — WNBA Finals aside, this was the league’s biggest game since, well, ever.

No disrespect to other exceptional games there’ve been over the years. But the Indiana Fever’s first visit to the Chicago Sky since Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso were drafted gave a glimpse of the league’s future, and it is tremendous.

It was a heck of a game, first of all, the Sky winning 88-87 after the Fever missed a potential game-winners with two seconds left. Reese had her best performance as a pro with 25 points and 16 rebounds. Cardoso showed what a problem she’s going to be once she gets her timing down, disrupting the Fever’s offense time and again, including a redirection of a Clark pass that led to a Reese layup that put the Sky on top for good.

And Clark? Well, we already knew all she does is set records and she did it again Sunday. Her 13 assists, to go with 17 points, was a single-game Fever record.

But the best part of the day was the atmosphere of this game. It was electric, the kind of energy this city hasn’t seen for a professional basketball game since the Jordan years. Wintrust Arena was sold out, and there were lines snaking around the building well before the doors opened. There were celebs sitting courtside. Fans were into it from the opening tip, their cheers downright deafening over the last two minutes.

The game was nationally televised, too, on ESPN. Which likely means more blockbuster ratings in a year that’s already seen a lot of them.

“It’s good for the game. Good for women’s basketball but also good for women’s sports,” Reese said afterward. “Everybody’s watching right now. I think it’s just one of the most important times, right, and we just continue to keep putting on – I think both teams tonight did an amazing job of putting on a show. It was fun.”

Anyone who says differently is being a contrarian. Or a Neanderthal.

The WNBA has always had talented players. Maybe not the depth of it that there is now, but talent nonetheless. There have been some captivating Finals, too. Think the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty last year. The Houston Comets and the Liberty back in the day. Heck, Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury and … everyone.

What the league has lacked are the fierce regular-season rivalries. Not the personal animosity and cat fighting that some ignorant and ill-intentioned people are trying to stoke. But heated battles that deliver every time the teams meet, with the biggest stars bringing out the best in one another.

Caitlin Clark reacts after scoring against the Chicago Sky on Sunday.
Caitlin Clark reacts after scoring against the Chicago Sky on Sunday.

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Those rivalries drive sports, fueling interest from the diehard and casual fans alike. We get invested in these games, regardless of what’s on the line. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers could both be at the bottom of the NFC North and it’ll still be a game worth watching because of the teams’ history and proximity. Same for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

The NBA is what it is today in large part because of the Magic and Bird’s rivalry, which began in college and carried over to their professional careers.

This is what the WNBA now has in the Sky and Fever.

Reese and Cardoso and Clark and Aliyah Boston are the cornerstones of their franchises. They already have an established history; Clark beat Boston and Cardoso in the Final Four two years ago before losing to Reese and LSU in the NCAA title game, then Clark beat Reese in this year’s Elite Eight before losing to Cardoso and South Carolina in the championship game.

Every one of those games was wildly entertaining and even more compelling.

Now they’re in the WNBA, split between teams that are less than three hours apart. Given the spiciness of their first three games, their meetings are going to continue to be must-see TV for as long as they’re playing. Which, given how young all four of them are, is going to be a while.

“I said this a couple of weeks ago, I think they did a really great job (in college) showing how great the game is on the women’s side. Individually, they’re all great players,” the Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell said.

“I’ve been on the side where we’re slowly making progress and then these guys come and they kind of put us way up on the map. It’s only up from here,” said Mitchell, who is in her seventh season.

There are plenty of other good stories in the W right now. A’ja Wilson is the best player on the planet and she and the Las Vegas Aces are trying to win three WNBA titles in a row. The New York Liberty has built a super team, with Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones. Alyssa Thomas is putting together another MVP-worthy season despite two bum shoulders.

But a rivalry like the Fever and Sky’s is the gateway drug. People who get caught up in it will eventually want to know what the rest of the league is all about, to see if all games are this enjoyable.

“It’s great to see that everyone really has eyes up on us. It’s really, really good to see,” Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon said. “They’re enthused about women’s basketball. Not just this game, but they’re enthused about women’s basketball, and that’s a big positive.”

There’s no question Clark and Boston and Reese and Cardoso are going to be great for their respective teams. The rivalry between them is going to be just as good for the WNBA.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese gift that will keep giving for WNBA