Caitlin Clark, Fever facing plenty of growing pains early after another blowout loss in home debut

INDIANAPOLIS — As Caitlin Clark walked back out onto her new home floor and her face appeared on the video board, thousands of others wearing her No. 22 cheered one of their more enthusiastic game reactions of the night. It was late in the third quarter, the Indiana Fever trailed by 23 points and Clark had only scored a single bucket way back in the first 90 seconds.

It did not matter to a renewed fan base that sold out the home opener against the New York Liberty with 17,274 people at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. It set the third-best regular season attendance total in franchise history and was quadruple the 2023 average of 4,056, according to Across the Timeline data.

They cheered when she made free throws and a scattering of men yelled “Caitlin” during brief silence at timeout breaks. Any time she even thought about stepping back while behind the arc, hands began to raise in early celebration.

The readiness wasn’t rewarded until 1:28 in the third quarter when she created separation from reserve rookie forward Leonie Fiebich for the first sprinkle of what should become a 3-pointer rainstorm as Clark adjusts to the league and her teammates adjust to her.

But that hasn’t happened yet. The gauntlet of a schedule that includes the top three 2023 MVP contenders within the first 12 days continued to get the best of the Fever on Thursday night. Breanna Stewart, the reigning MVP of the second-closest race in WNBA history, scored 31 points and 10 rebounds to lead New York to a 102-66 win two days after runner-up Alyssa Thomas opened with a triple-double in the Connecticut Sun’s win over Indiana.

“You don’t win a lot of games in this league only scoring 66 points,” Indiana head coach Christie Sides said, “but also you don’t win a lot of games giving up 102.”

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) shows frustration during her team's loss to the New York Liberty on Thursday. (Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports)
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) shows frustration during her team's loss to the New York Liberty on Thursday. (Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports)

Clark has said repeatedly over the last few days a variant of “not everything’s going to be perfect,” and even with flashes of promise, it remains the case. She impacted the game better than her debut in Connecticut with nine points, seven rebounds, six assists and only three turnovers.

“Things are definitely moving fast,” Clark said before the game. “But that's how this game moves. So I think just the more experience I get, things will slow down.”

Clark’s reentrance in the third provided a jolt to the Fever and she scored seven of Indiana’s 10-0 run to pull within 11 of the Liberty, the WNBA Finals runner-up with the most success against the two-time champion Las Vegas Aces. She sandwiched her only 3 between two sets of free throws, the team forced two turnovers and the building sizzled with the most energy since their superstar No. 1 pick walked out to her first home introduction.

“It got really loud when we cut it to 11,” Sides said. “They were yelling defense and that's exactly what it was. We've got to do a better job. We got to make the fans proud with what we put on the floor.”

In the final seconds of the quarter, Clark attempted to slip a pass to a cutting NaLyssa Smith on the final play. It was too late for the buzzer, and her 3-point attempt after a Courtney Vandersloot turnover missed. Indiana couldn’t collect stops, the offense couldn’t keep scoring — the 5-foot-11 Sabrina Ionescu blocked the 6-5 Aliyah Boston at one point — and New York won the final quarter, 35-10, while destroying Indiana in nearly every way.

Clark was 2-of-8, including 1-of-7 from deep, with five fouls. Not many shots fell in shootaround nor in the game, and a few times she brought her hands to her head in dismay or disbelief.

“She's figuring it out,” Sides said. “She just needs to get a little bit of confidence right now. I think she's taking some shots that she normally would knock down.”

A few of Clark’s 3-point attempts rimmed out and she was hounded constantly by Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, one of the league’s best defenders who finished with a game-high 43 plus-minus. Laney-Hamilton nearly stole a few inbound passes and Clark had no room to get shots off. The defensive game plan was centered around Clark.

“They're making it really hard on her,” Sides said. “We've got to do a better job of finding ways to get her some easier, more open looks.”

“Teams are really, really hounding her, full-court, 94 feet, so we’ve got to do some stuff as a unit to flow better with that,” Katie Lou Samuelson said.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) rushes up the court past New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) on Thursday. (Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports)
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) rushes up the court past New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) on Thursday. (Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports)

Sides' biggest concern was pride, a word she repeated multiple times in a six-minute post-game interview, and mental toughness.

“We’ve just got to get an attitude a little bit when people score on us,” Sides said. “You just can’t let it be so easy and let them just do what they want to do on us. It all goes back to just having a little bit of fight, passion [and] toughness.”

Stewart scored with ease, just as Connecticut’s scorers did 48 hours prior. They were two of the four highest-scoring offenses in 2023 and returned their main pieces. Indiana will play New York again on Saturday in Brooklyn on a quick turnaround (1 p.m., ABC) before meeting the Sun for a second time on Monday.

There isn't much time for the Fever to catch their breath after that either with Wednesday’s visit to Seattle and Friday night’s to the Los Angeles Sparks, a team in rebuild mode that'll give Indiana its best chance at an early win. The Fever play at the two-time reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and MVP candidate A’ja Wilson on May 25.

Pride and mental toughness will have to be what Indiana relies on, because there is no time to work it out in practices. It’s yet another adjustment a rookie in the WNBA has to make quickly, and Clark is being thrown into it on blast with a team that was still in foundation-building mode when 2023 No. 1 overall pick Aliyah Boston arrived.

“You more so have to learn through the film of the past game and obviously watching your opponent more than you’re on the court practicing and getting better,” Clark said. “It’s a lot more mental preparation than probably physical in college.”

The crowd began filtering out with a few minutes on the clock and the starting five on the bench. Many of them spent the afternoon buying new merchandise at the team store, celebrating the start of the franchise’s 25th anniversary season at the plaza’s block party and later settling into their seats for the very first time.

Linda Hutte, in a copy of the State Farm jacket made for Clark at her Iowa senior day, had never watched a women's basketball game until Clark’s junior year of college. She lives an hour away, but purchased season tickets because, “Man, the gal’s got it,” she said. “She just draws ya in.”

She has so far, both in person and on TV much as she did while at Iowa. The Hawkeyes drew the nation’s attention in part, Clark always said, because they played a fun style of basketball.

That’s still a work in progress for Clark and this Fever squad that’s taking punch after punch with the entire city (and much of the country) watching every jab.

“We will give the crowd more energy than we gave tonight, overall,” said Samuelson, a fifth-year veteran who signed in free agency. “I think we can give them as much as they’re giving to us. That’s something that will never happen again.”