Caitlin Clark proves worth the hype as Fever beats Mystics

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The No. 22 was impossible to miss at Capital One Arena on Friday night, and that doesn’t even include the one on the basketball court. The digits were printed on black Iowa shirts and yellow Hawkeyes jerseys. They were featured on blue-and-yellow Indiana Fever jerseys and shirts. There were even three red T-shirts that had the number emblazoned in big white numerals.

The Caitlin Clark show arrived in D.C., and the masses descended to see the phenom who was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff sat courtside next to Washington Mystics owners Sheila Johnson and Ted Leonsis. LSU Coach Kim Mulkey was back for the second consecutive night. Bootsy Collins performed at halftime. A bunch of Washington Wizards were in attendance.

The quick and low-key introductions that visiting teams receive did not escape the attention of the late-arriving crowd, which roared with the announcement of Clark’s name. She did not disappoint any of those folks — except the true Mystics fans — as she matched her career high with 30 points for the Fever, which held on for an 85-83 victory. The game was held at Capital One Arena for a second consecutive night, but this one had every seat available, and the final announced crowd of 20,333 was the highest for any WNBA game since 2007 and the fifth highest for a regular season game in league history.

“I try to look around and take it in,” Clark said. “Every place is new. It’s a great environment. Every place is unique. But also this is my first year in the [WNBA], so it has a little extra sentiment to it that I really appreciate. And that’ll be something I remember for my entire career.

“I try to look around before the tip and just take in the environment. I did the same thing in college because these environments are really special and it’s cool to see how many people show up for women’s basketball and are so excited to be here.”

The loss was the Mystics’ 11th in a row to start the season, the worst start in franchise history. The Mystics were still without a pair of starters in Brittney Sykes (ankle), who missed her ninth consecutive game, and Shakira Austin (hip), who has now missed the past three.

We know the things that we do,” Ariel Atkins said. “We know our strengths. We’re just going through it, man. I don’t know if there’s any other way to say it. We don’t get an opportunity to hang our heads. We literally leave for another game tomorrow.

Honestly, this sucks. Just sucks not having a win yet, but there’s no finger pointing in the locker room. We’re locked in to each other. We’re going to continue to stay together and keep pushing.”

Clark got off to a slow start for the Fever (3-9), but the crowd hung on her every movement. She got on the board early with a finger-roll layup, followed by rousing applause. It was the second basket, Clark’s patented, step-back three-pointer from 29 feet, that truly got the fans going. But that was just the start; a 20-point second half, including three threes in the third quarter, produced the career day. Her seven three-pointers were a career high and tied the league rookie record for a game. Clark (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists) is now the second rookie in WNBA history to post 30-plus points, five-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and five-plus three-pointers after Sabrina Ionescu. Everything wasn’t perfect, however; Clark finished with eight turnovers.

Outside of a rough first quarter for the Mystics, the two teams were close throughout the night. Washington trailed by two after the second and third quarters and were down two with 25.3 seconds remaining. Coach Eric Thibault called a timeout, and after the inbounds, Atkins (16 points) went quickly and missed a fadeaway with 19.9 seconds remaining. Still, there was a final opportunity after a Clark missed a free throw. Atkins got a look from the top of the arc with 1.4 seconds left but double-pumped, and by the time she got the shot off, the clock had expired.

We wanted to go,” Thibault said about the first Atkins shot. “You don’t want to hold it for the last one when you’re down. You want to give yourself more chances to score. If it’s a tie game, we would have held it. She got to her spot going left, got a pretty good look. We missed a few down the stretch.

“Hell of a game. Back and forth. A lot of great shooters on display. Two teams playing their hearts out. I know the standings are what they are, but they don’t look like two bad basketball teams to me out there tonight.”

Stefanie Dolson scored a season-high 19 points for the Mystics and matched a career high with five threes. Rookie Aaliyah Edwards had her second straight double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Kelsey Mitchell added 16 points for the Fever.

“I was feeling tired, to be honest with you,” Dolson said. “So it was nice when the first one went in. But honestly, the girls did a really good job of just creating offense. Ariel, especially. She would attack and draw two or three and kick it out. So I think they just did a really good job of finding me. And the coaches are telling me to let it fly. So I’m just letting it fly.”

The Mystics now travel to New York to face the Liberty on Sunday for their third game in four days.

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