WNBA stars Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese descend on D.C., delight fans in ‘Battle of the Rookies’

WASHINGTON — Thursday morning, Washington, D.C. native Raj Sedalia planted himself out front of Capital One Arena armed with a bucket of chalk. The next three hours were dedicated to a Washington Mystics commissioned mural, a short-term commemorative piece for what locals will long remember as the two days that the eyes of the WNBA descended on the nation’s capital.

Pictured on the left is Indiana Fever No. 1 overall draft pick Caitlin Clark. To the right shows Angel Reese, a Randallstown native and first-year Chicago Sky forward. And between the two figureheads, featured most prominently, was the hometown Mystics’ first-round pick Aaliyah Edwards. In bold white script above the names, it aptly reads: Battle of the Rookies.

“I remember when the WNBA started,” Sedalia said. “And it seems like it’s really crossed the threshold of popularity with the general public.”

Friday night was the second of back-to-back Mystics games moved from their normal 4,000-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena 20 minutes north to the 20,000-seat Capital One Arena to meet the demand of the star-studded stretch. Tickets for the Fever’s narrow 85-83 win went on sale April 23. They sold out within roughly 30 minutes.

On nights like this, the growing star power is hard to miss. The three teams featured over two days are all below .500. The Mystics (0-11) and Fever (3-9) have the two worst records in the WNBA. The Sky (4-5 heading into Saturday) aren’t far ahead, leading the six teams below .500.

Yet so many longing fans filed in to see the “Battle of the Rookies.” Friday night’s attendance was an announced 20,333, with Capital One Arena opening the upper deck seating. It was the highest-attended WNBA game since 2007 and the seventh-highest in league history, according to Across the Timeline. It easily cleared this year’s average attendance for Wizards home games (16,898).

And it was worth the price of admission, with Friday’s game decided in the waning seconds. Karlie Samuelson kept the home team’s hopes alive with a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to one with seven seconds left. Clark, who finished with 30 points on a career-high seven 3s, sank three of four late free throws to stave off a Mystics miracle, pushing the out-of-town rookies to 2-0 after Reese and the Sky won, 79-71, on Thursday.

While Sedalia’s artistic patience was periodically interrupted — both by fans regurgitating some of the same tired narratives that have plagued the last week of national sports discourse and others eager for the on-court action featuring two of the league’s most recognizable stars — he could feel the elevated pulse of the city.

“It’s definitely a big deal for Washington to have this happen,” Sedalia said.

Thursday was Reese’s turn. Sedalia was struck by the overwhelming allegiance for a “visiting” star. An announced sellout crowd of 10,000 packed in for the Randallstown native’s homecoming. She wore Maryland-themed sneakers, part of a line of custom Reeboks with help from Chicago-based sole designer Marvin Baroota. Reese bought tickets for every Baltimore-based person she knows: family, friends and hairstylists, all there to see the rookie post her third double-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and five steals.

“I’m just happy to be a part of this, negative or positive,” Reese told reporters Thursday. “People are talking about women’s basketball. That’s really important. This is long overdue.”

To a question about the slew of D.C. youngsters repping Iowa or Fever gear, Clark said, “Even though we’re [3-9], people are still coming. They’re still excited about the young talent we have on our team. You see it across the board in the W. … there’s been really great crowds.”

D.C. residents John B. and Colton M. both compared it with their tickets for Clark’s No. 3 ranked Iowa team visiting Maryland back in February. John called having her in College Park, “the most electric atmosphere.” Colton, who was wearing a Clark T-shirt jersey, studied at Iowa. He proudly shared that he was in the building when Clark broke the NCAA Division I all-time scoring record.

“It’s been a huge moment,” Colton said of the WNBA’s recent notoriety. “Just for the whole sport. Everybody knows about it. Everybody knows the games are happening.”

Both John and Colton bought their first Mystics tickets to see the sharpshooter record her second 30-point outing this season. They’re even playing in a fantasy WNBA league. Colton grabbed Breanna Stewart with the No. 1 overall pick. He has Mystics center Shakira Austin, too. John was able to swipe Clark at No. 4.

They postulated an 80-20 split of fans in attendance to see Clark, who herself wasn’t so sure at times. “I could’ve sworn they were booing when calls didn’t go our way but maybe I was just being delusional,” she joked.

It’s true, not everyone arrived in downtown D.C. just to see the away teams.

Sitting a few rows back behind the home bench was Rehana Mohammed. She beamed with pride flexing her “DC vs. All Y’all” T-shirt, which was given out at a Mystics game earlier this season.

Mohammed, 34, has had season tickets for years and was in the building for both prime-time games this week.

“It’s great to see so many people getting so excited for the game,” she said. “We’ve been watching the WNBA for a long time so it’s great to see more people getting interested in it. … We ride for the Mystics. We love the Mystics. It’s just great to see so many people come out to support what we know.”

There was some consolation for the longtime Mystics fan to see her team lose during Reese’s homecoming. She was excited to see Clark take the floor but had no interest in bearing another loss. Mohammed won’t let anyone forget about their rookie Edwards either.

The sixth overall pick had career highs with 23 points and 14 rebounds against Chicago, making her the second rookie in the team’s history to post a 20-and-10-plus game. She followed that up with a 10-point, 12-rebound double-double Friday.

For these two days, Capital One Arena filled in with fans who will one day look back fondly on shuffling their plans to see some of the league’s brightest stars on consecutive nights. They’ll remember the energy in the building when Reese, the homegrown star, gave the visiting Sky their biggest lead, or Clark bringing fans to their feet with her patented logo 3.

True to Sedalia’s sidewalk chalk mural, the rookies showed up with unprecedented demand and undoubtedly battled.

“I hope this becomes the norm,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “Big crowd Friday night. Two teams going at it. It’s what’s a lot of us in the sport have wanted to see happen and it’s great to see it happen in front of our eyes.”