Kaitlyn Clark scored 9 points in her home debut as the Fever lost

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

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

“We have to get to a level of toughness,” Indiana coach Christy Sides said. “When things go south, we don’t stop 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 turnovers against Liberty.

Thursday marked 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 eight points against Northwestern at the time, but now she faces the best players in the world.

Clark, who scored 20 points against the Sun, said the good thing about the WNBA’s busy schedule is that there’s no time to be sad. The Fever next travels to New York to face Liberty again on Saturday.

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“When you’re in this league, there’s 12 teams — everyone’s good across the board,” Clarke said before the game. “We have a young group. But as long as we learn and keep getting better, that’s what will be positive for us.”

Clark, who was not brought into the post-match press conference after the loss, pointed out some things that she believes are obvious weaknesses for her when she gets her feet wet in the professional game.

“The physicality is definitely there…I was easily thrown off the screens,” she said. “The game seems a little fast to me now. The more I play and get more comfortable, it will slow down a little. It will be easier for me to read, and see things developing.”

There has been tremendous excitement around the Clark fever. But this is still a franchise that hasn’t reached the WNBA playoffs since 2016 and starts with 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 player is Erica Wheeler. She was traded out of Rutgers in 2013 but made her way into the league. The Fever are in the early stages of finding themselves, while the Liberty returns all five of their starters from last year’s WNBA Finals team that fell to the Aces.

Like Boston and Clark, the Liberty also has two former No. 1 picks: forward Brianna Stewart (2016) and guard Sabrina Ionescu (2020). Stewart and Jonquil Jones are the two former MVPs, and on Thursday they combined for 45 points, 20 rebounds and 8 assists.

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

“It’s great to play against her,” Clark said of Ionescu, who scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds on Thursday. “She’s someone who’s been a fixture in this league and was one of the best point guards ever. So for me, it’s definitely a little exciting,” Clark added of Liberty’s Courtney Vandersloot, who had nine points and six assists. Even though I’m competing with them.”

Ionescu played just three games in her rookie year in 2020 before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. In her first full season in 2021, Ionescu averaged 11.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds. The past two seasons, she was an All-Star and on the WNBA All-Star Second Team.

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

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

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

However, the buzz around Clark continues. There’s a huge mural of Clark in a downtown Indianapolis hotel, put there by Gatorade, one of its sponsors. The Pacers/Fever team store in Gainbridge has all kinds of Fever and Clark merchandise: t-shirts, sweatshirts, pennants, posters, hats, etc. People were milling about outside the square a few hours before Thursday’s tipoff. Many of them wore Clark’s number 22, either the Iowa Hockey version or the Fever version.

Lisa Bluder, who recently resigned after 24 years leading the Iowa women’s basketball program, and her longtime assistant Jan Jensen, who has moved into the role of head coach for the Hokies, were on the court to support Clark.

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

“I have a great perspective on everything that happens,” Clark said. “It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. There were some moments where I wasn’t happy with the way I played and my team performed. That’s just life, that’s just basketball.”

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