Home Sports Welcome to the WNBA: Caitlin Clark’s regular-season debut is anything but easy

Welcome to the WNBA: Caitlin Clark’s regular-season debut is anything but easy

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

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

Caitlin Clark is no longer in Iowa, even if the game-day vibes left that impression at Mohegan Sun Arena. And if the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas didn’t make it clear in the opening minutes, DeWanna Bonner completed the task in the final few.

The 15-year veteran stomped and stood, chest out, for nearly a minute after making a three-point play to push the lead to 16 and time was running out on any Clark heroics. A few meters back, Thomas let out one of his many demonstrative cries of the night. The sold-out crowd of 8,910, still less than the Sun’s 2023 season high, answered the call as it did once again in the final seconds as DiJonai Carrington cheered them on to celebrate a 92-71 Connecticut victory.

No generational talent, no matter how great he was in college or how he eventually turns pro, was going to walk into the home of a veteran team and light it up in his rookie debut. The Connecticut Sun is a franchise so accustomed to debunking disrespect that they built an entire identity around it. And for months now, all they heard was how Clark would set the league on fire, win MVP and one day break the scoring record.

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

“Connecticut came in and punched us in the mouth tonight,” Indiana Fever head coach Christie Side said. “That is what they are. “Connecticut Sun is a good team.”

“I thought our first few possessions were good, and then they ran out and we really struggled to score,” Clark said. “So I’m sure I agree with the coach.”

To put it more clearly: reality hits hard. That’s all Taurasi said.

Clark said his first impressions of his first game revolved around physicality. She enters Thomas, the welcome-to-the-league moment that has tantalized fans since the schedule was released and Clark announced she would be entering the WNBA Draft. Thomas delivered the veteran’s finesse early, drawing two quick fouls from Clark that forced the guard to the bench midway through the first quarter. The crowd roared and Thomas smiled as he headed to the free throw line.

As much attention as Clark attracted as he walked into the night, the focus was on Thomas’ shoulders and his two torn labrums. The MVP runner-up picked up where she left off with a 13-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound performance after averaging nearly a triple-double last season and losing 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 wasn’t going to happen again this season,” said Bonner, who on Tuesday moved into fifth place on the all-time scoring list. “So for (Thomas) to set the tone and say, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t a fluke, I’m back,’ that’s huge of him.”

Thomas, an 11-year veteran, ran past a defender to rebound her own shot early in the fourth, and when Sun head coach Stephanie White didn’t like the guard matchups, she put Thomas in to hold on to Clark on the perimeter. . The last quarter was the most aggressive and successful for Clark until the vet gave his opinion.

“WNBA fans who have been here for a while know exactly the type of player she is,” White said. “For us to introduce her to a new audience, (to) introduce the versatility of her, the competitive spirit of her, the way she approaches the game (and) the professionalism of her? She was big. To me it was one of the most exciting things she wanted to happen tonight.”

Millions of people followed Clark and her rookie class from the college ranks to the WNBA, where there are players of Thomas’ caliber on every roster. She did everything and was everywhere, as she has done throughout her career. But it was Carrington, a three-year reserve who took over the starting role this year, who gave Clark the most fits.

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

Clark fed Aliyah Boston for the Fever’s first points of the year on the opening possession, a task Clark said earlier in the day she wanted to complete, before the excitement subsided. 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 she predicted two hours earlier.

“Honestly, what I’ve been thinking about is it would be nice to get a layup as my first basket,” Clark told reporters before the game. “Why not get a high percentage to start, right?”

Those became few and far between for all against the Sun’s elite defense. Clark’s anticipated first three failed on a 26-footer with 30 seconds left until halftime. He had three more in the contest, some in response to the Sun’s scoring, but none to start the iconic runs of Iowa tradition. Clark added three assists and stayed out of further foul trouble with two more in the next three quarters. .

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

The Fever show promise, but that potential requires more time than 10 practices and two preseason warmups. The teams began the day describing the team’s schedule in May as “unbelievable” in terms of strength, and by the end of the night they kept it as “not kind.” The team traveled home at nearly midnight Tuesday to prepare for its home opener against championship runner-up New York Liberty on Thursday. The Fever head to Brooklyn for a rematch on Saturday.

The reality is that there are no real off days in this league. Tough opponents are coming faster than Clark’s three-pointers right now. There is no time for the group to practice, leaving cinema as the main option.

“For me, the biggest challenge, and it’s what I told them, you don’t have time to sit in this game and just stay angry or mad,” Sides said. “We have to move forward. “We have to get to New York, we have to find out what we did tonight and we can do better.”

Clark and Smith echoed the sentiment. It’s “back to the drawing board,” Clark said, and it’s up to them as professionals to execute it, Smith added. They weren’t the ones who ever said it would be easy.

“I know the outside world thinks I’m going to do amazing things, but that might take some time,” Clark said during morning shootaround. “If things aren’t perfect right away, or a game isn’t as amazing as I want it to be, give yourself grace, keep learning, and keep improving.”

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