Clark on 10-TO debut: ‘Learn from it, move on’

  • Alexa Philippou, ESPNMay 14, 2024, 10:00 PM ET

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    • Covers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
    • Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
    • Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Caitlin Clark scored a team-high 20 points but committed 10 turnovers, the most in a career debut in WNBA history, as her Indiana Fever fell 92-71 to the Connecticut Sun in their season opener Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Clark, NCAA Division I basketball’s all-time leading scorer and the No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft, didn’t get on the board until the 5:24 mark of the second quarter when she converted on a drive to the rim off a steal.

“I’m disappointed, and nobody likes to lose, but I don’t think you can beat yourself up too much about one game,” Clark said. “I don’t think that’s going to help this team.

“Just learn from it and move on.”

The game had the bustle and energy of a WNBA Finals matchup. Fans donning Sun, Fever and even Iowa gear lined up to get into the arena more than 2½ hours before the tip. The Sun handed out more than 170 media credentials, with ESPN’s “WNBA Countdown” desk stationed near the Fever bench and overflow media coming from near and far situated in a skybox.

The crowd of 8,910 marked the Sun’s first home opener sellout since 2003 in their inaugural game in Connecticut.

Clark, who emerged as the face of women’s basketball while in college at Iowa, elicited cheers from the crowd, including the moment she corralled the ball off the opening tip, when she scored her first WNBA points off a layup and when she got going from the 3-point arc.

But the Sun gave their fans plenty to be loud about throughout the evening, securing the lead four minutes in, jumping ahead by as many as 15 late in the second quarter and not allowing Indiana to get closer than five. The loudest cheers were for 14-year veteran DeWanna Bonner when she was honored during a timeout for becoming the league’s No. 5 all-time scorer and for Alyssa Thomas when she notched her 12th career triple-double (including postseason) late in the fourth.

Thomas, who came in second in MVP voting in 2023, led the league in assists and rebounds last season.

“For me, personally, I felt like a lot of people felt like last season [for Thomas] was a fluke and it wasn’t going to happen again this season,” said Bonner, who is Thomas’ fiancée. “For her to set the tone, like, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t a fluke, I’m back,’ that’s just huge for her.”

The Sun’s veteran core and defensive identity was too much for a young Fever team still learning how to play with one another. Indiana, which also got 13 points from post player NaLyssa Smith, turned the ball over 25 times, which Connecticut converted into 29 points.

The Fever, who are hoping to snap the league’s longest active playoff drought at seven seasons, have lost their opening game in 10 of the past 11 campaigns, with their only win coming in 2019.

“They punched us in the mouth tonight,” Fever coach Christie Sides said.

Reflecting Tuesday morning after shootaround, Clark said that while the outside world might believe she will do amazing things in the WNBA right away, she understands it might take time. That learning curve was apparent Tuesday: Clark’s 10 turnovers, coming against a Connecticut squad known for its defense and physicality, were the most in a game in Fever history. Cynthia Cooper held the previous record for turnovers in a career debut with eight in June 1997 during the inaugural WNBA season.

“I think definitely the physicality,” Clark said when asked what was so difficult for her on Tuesday. “I think also just like some uncharacteristic stuff. Like, I pick up the ball and travel, I dribble off my foot, I pass it on the inbound, I turn it over. So just a few things that are just — you have to be crisper.”

DiJonai Carrington, a fourth-year guard out of Stanford and Baylor, drew the primary assignment on Clark and locked her down for most of the contest. Carrington held Clark to 2-of-10 shooting and forced eight turnovers when she was the primary defender. Thomas, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender, bothered Clark at times too and drew several fouls on the rookie.

“This is what we expect from her,” Sun coach Stephanie White said about Carrington. “The growth from her to be able to come into the starting lineup, to be able to understand that expectation and be able to do it consistently is the challenge, and she did that here tonight.”

Clark started to find more of a rhythm from the 3-point arc later in the game, knocking down three of her four treys in the second half. She finished 5-for-15 from the field, including 4-for-11 from 3, while adding 3 assists and 2 steals.

“She’s a rookie,” Sides said. “This is the best league in the world. We’ve got to teach her. We’ve got to teach her what these games are going to look like for her every single night. And we’ve got to eliminate some of that pressure for her, and that’s on me.”

Connecticut also got it done on the other end, thanks to Carrington and Tyasha Harris combining for 32 points and Bonner scoring a team-high 20. Two-time All-Star Brionna Jones made her return to the league after tearing her right Achilles tendon in June, scoring eight points in just under 20 minutes.

Before a rematch against the Sun on Monday in Indianapolis, Clark and the Fever will play the New York Liberty, last year’s WNBA Finals runner-up, at home on Thursday then in Brooklyn on Saturday.