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Angel Reese powers Sky in first win over Caitlin Clark and the Fever this season

Julia Poe, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Basketball

CHICAGO — Within minutes of tipoff in any game between the Chicago Sky and the Indiana Fever, one thing becomes obvious.

These teams don’t really like each other. And the ripple of rivalry that’s spreading across the 181 miles separating Indianapolis and Chicago is a driving force for the next wave of success in the WNBA.

It was clear to the sold-out crowd at Wintrust Arena. The popularity of rookies Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso powered attendance.

Clark jerseys — in both Iowa and Indiana yellow — packed the stands as fans hoisted posters begging for signatures and pictures. Cheers for the Sky still drowned out the Indiana contingent — but barely, as the crowd roared in equal excitement for Clark’s 3-pointers and Reese’s and-one plays.

All three rookies embraced every ounce of the hype. Clark shattered the Fever single-game record with 13 assists, dissecting the Sky defense with precision to fuel a 26-5 run in the third quarter. Cardoso and Reese outrebounded the entire Fever roster with a combined 26 boards. And Reese delivered her eighth consecutive double-double, scoring 25 points and galvanizing the Sky offense in the fourth quarter.

“I’m a dog,” Reese said after the win. “You can’t teach that.”

Over three games this season, the Fever and the Sky have made a statement: The future of the WNBA is here and it lives in the Midwest.

But is that enough to build a rivalry? Coaches and players on either side still aren’t so sure.

​​“I’m pretty sure the only people that have viewed this as a rivalry is all of you,” Clark said to the media. “For us, it’s just a game of basketball.”

Sky coach Teresa Weatherspoon agreed, shrugging off the idea ahead of Sunday’s game.

“We haven’t done anything to consider anything a rivalry,” Weatherspoon said. “We don’t see it as a rivalry. We don’t. We see it as a game that we got to go out and win. And we recognize how close we all are in distance, but it’s about us trying to get better. That’s the way we’re approaching everything. Every single game, our approach is to get better every single day.”

So maybe it’s not a rivalry. Not just yet. But the glimmer of something is already poking through.

That promise was visible when Fever guard Erica Wheeler picked up a technical foul for trying to rip the ball out of Marina Mabrey’s hands on a dead ball. And again when NaLyssa Smith stooped over to hit the “too small” gesture after scoring on Reese. Even more so when Reese made a game-tying basket over Smith minutes later, dancing back to the bench as she cracked a grin at Smith.

And basketball fans? Whether it’s in Chicago, Indiana or across the WNBA — they love it. In a matter of weeks, any matchup between the Sky and the Fever has become the hottest ticket in town.

 

The get-in-the-door price for Sunday’s game soared over $300 with sideline seats going for more than $5,000. Local royalty and national celebrities lined the courtside seats: Lil Durk, Chance the Rapper, Jason Sudeikis, Jalen Brunson, Sheryl Swoopes. The team’s last meeting drew nearly 3 million viewers — a record for any WNBA game — and Sunday’s ESPN broadcast could follow suit.

“I love it,” Reese said. “I love this for women’s sports. They haven’t sold out crowds in a long time so being able to do this and being able to be here in this moment, continue to grow women’s basketball is important to me.”

And Clark called for an even bigger stage for the game, pointing out that moving the game to the United Center — which was booked up for a Russ concert — could have doubled attendance to a maximum capacity of 21,000 fans.

“I’m surprised we’re not playing at the United Center,” Clark said Friday following the Fever’s game against the Atlanta Dream. “I thought that would’ve been really good for the game and really good for all the women’s basketball fans in Chicago. Maybe there’s a conflict of some sort that I don’t know about. Obviously, that’s a little above my pay grade.”

Moving the matchup might be a conversation for the future when the Fever return in August. But on Sunday, the smaller venue provided an explosive environment — which offered both a help and a hindrance for the Sky in a razor-thin game.

The Sky have struggled to keep their cool this season. It’s not surprising — they’re a young team that plays best with high tempo and high emotion, feeding into the vibrant personalities of stars like Reese and Chennedy Carter. But that can often translate into youthful recklessness, causing the team to lose eight of their 10 clutch games before Sunday.

Weatherspoon knew composure would be a challenge long before the Sky slipped into a 15-point deficit in the third quarter.

“All eyes are definitely upon us,” Weatherspoon said before the game. “The energy and enthusiasm that’s in the gym — it’s electric. We just have to be poised. One thing that we always talk about is keeping a cool head in a hot game. When the arena gets noisy — whether it’s for you or against you — it’s all about composure.”

But on Sunday, the Sky’s composure didn’t break.

Reese anchored the closing stretch for the Sky, sprinting full-court for back-to-back transition buckets to snap the Sky out of a scoreless slump at the end of the third quarter. Diamond DeShields and Carter delivered crucial blows while Cardoso aided Reese in keeping the Fever off the offensive glass.

And even when Cardoso and Marina Mabrey missed free throws in the final 30 seconds, the Sky absorbed their late-game mistakes to deliver an 88-87 win — their first this season over Clark’s Fever team — to a Chicago crowd hungry to see this young group succeed.

“Everybody’s watching right now,” Reese said. “I think this is one of the most important times right now and we just continue to keep playing. I think both teams did an amazing job putting on a show tonight.”

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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