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Clark held to rare single digits in Fever home loss

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INDIANAPOLIS — Guard Caitlin Clark took to the newly designed floor for the Indiana Fever on Thursday along with three other WNBA No. 1 draft picks, two past MVPs and the player she watched closely throughout high school. In the Fever’s home opener, a sellout crowd of 17,274 showed up for Clark’s official introduction to Indianapolis fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

But the New York Liberty, one of two franchises dubbed superteams last season, along with Las Vegas, did their part to spoil the party, beating the Fever 102-66.

“We’ve got to get to a level of toughness,” Indiana coach Christie Sides said. “When things are going south on us, we’re not stopping the bleeding.”

Clark finished with 9 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, going 2-of-8 from the field. After 10 turnovers in Indiana’s season-opening loss at Connecticut on Tuesday, Clark had three against the Liberty.

Thursday was the first time since January 2021 in her freshman season at Iowa that Clark — the all-time Division I scoring leader — was held to single digits. She had 8 points against Northwestern then, but she’s now facing the best players in the world.

Clark, who had 20 points against the Sun, said the good thing about the WNBA’s busy schedule is there’s no time to sulk. The Fever next travel to New York to face the Liberty again Saturday.

“When you’re in this league, there’s 12 teams — everybody’s good across the board,” Clark said before the game. “We’ve got a young group. But as long as we’re learning and continuing to get better, that’s what’s going to be positive for us.”

Clark, who wasn’t brought to the postgame news conference after the loss, pointed to some things she thinks are obvious weaknesses for her as she gets her feet wet in the pro game.

“The physicality is definitely up there …I’m easily pushed off screens,” she said. “The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it’s going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop.”

There has been tremendous excitement around the Fever because of Clark. But this is still a franchise that hasn’t made the WNBA playoffs since 2016 and starts players who are in their third, second and first years in the league — NaLyssa Smith, Aliyah Boston, and Clark — along with Katie Lou Samuelson, who is on her fifth team in five years in the WNBA.

All four players were lottery picks, while the most experienced Fever starter is Erica Wheeler. She was undrafted from Rutgers in 2013 but still made her way to the league. The Fever are in the earliest stages of finding themselves, while the Liberty return all five of their starters from last year’s WNBA Finals team that fell to the Aces.

Like Boston and Clark, the Liberty also have two past No. 1 picks: Forward Breanna Stewart (2016) and guard Sabrina Ionescu (2020). Stewart and Jonquel Jones are past MVPs, and Thursday they combined for 45 points, 20 rebounds and 8 assists.

Ionescu had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles at Oregon, and Clark said her family bought a subscription to the Pac-12 network while she was in high school so she could watch her.

“It’s cool getting to go up against her,” Clark said of Ionescu, who had 14 points and 7 rebounds Thursday. And Clark added of the Liberty’s Courtney Vandersloot, who had 9 points and 6 assists: “She’s somebody who has been a staple of this league and has been one of the best point guards of all time. So for me, it’s definitely a little excitement, even though I’m competing against them.”

Ionescu played only three games in what would have been her rookie year of 2020 before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury. In her first full season, 2021, Ionescu averaged 11.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds. The past two seasons, she has been an All-Star and on the all-WNBA second team.

“In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score,” Ionescu said of what all rookie guards must deal with. “There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences.”

Vandersloot was the No. 3 pick by the Chicago Sky in 2011, and Sides was actually an assistant coach for the Sky then. Vandersloot is the active WNBA leader in career assists, second only to retired Seattle Storm star Sue Bird on the all-time assist list.

“The margin for error was the biggest thing for me,” Vandersloot said of what Clark is up against. “The things you constantly did in college just didn’t work at the next level.”

Even so, the buzz around Clark continues. There is a huge mural of Clark on a downtown Indianapolis hotel, put there by Gatorade, one of her sponsors. The Pacers/Fever team store at Gainbridge has all kinds of Fever and Clark merchandise: T-shirts, sweatshirts, pennants, stickers, hats etc. People milled around outside the arena a few hours before Thursday’s tipoff. Many were wearing Clark’s No. 22, either the Iowa Hawkeyes’ version or the Fever’s.

Lisa Bluder, who recently resigned after 24 years leading the Iowa women’s basketball program, and her longtime assistant Jan Jensen, who moved into the Hawkeyes’ head-coaching role, were courtside to support Clark.

The game itself didn’t match the hype, but as Clark said, she and the Fever must move on quickly.

“I have great perspective on everything that happens,” Clark said. “It was same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That’s just life, that’s just basketball.”

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