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3 takeaways: Aces whip Fever in Caitlin Clark’s Vegas debut — PHOTOS

Updated May 26, 2024 - 12:38 pm

Caitlin Clark can officially say she’s been to Las Vegas.

“I’ve honestly never been here before,” the Indiana Fever superstar rookie said before Saturday’s game. “I’m assuming it’s gonna be very loud in (Michelob Ultra Arena). It’s kind of a little bit smaller. So you know it’s probably gonna echo pretty good.”

As the defending champions rolled to a 99-80 win over the Fever, the sold-out crowd in Las Vegas proved her right.

Star forward A’ja Wilson led the Aces (3-1) with game-highs of 29 points and 15 rebounds. She’s the only player in WNBA history to notch more than 100 points and 50 rebounds in the first four games of a season.

Guard Kesley Mitchell was the highest scorer with the Fever (1-6) with 16 points. Forward Aliyah Boston added 12 points and six rebounds, while Clark recorded eight points on 2-for-8 shooting from the field, along with five rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers.

The matchup featured three former Iowa Hawkeyes: forward Megan Gustafson and rookie guard Kate Martin of the Aces and Clark. When Martin entered the game as a substitute with two minutes, 40 seconds, remaining in the first quarter, all of the Iowa pros were on the court together at once. Recently retired Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and her replacement, Jan Jensen, sat courtside to watch the moment unfold.

When Martin took the floor, she was guarded by none other than Clark, her best friend and teammate for four years. Martin scored her first points of the game on a corner 3-pointer assisted by guard Kelsey Plum in the third quarter, and, as usual, the fans loved it. Martin finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.

“It was weird, I’m not gonna lie,” Martin told reporters when asked what it was like to play against Clark. “We’re both living out our dream right now.”

Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s game:

1. Historic scorers

Wilson secured the first points Saturday with a quick pullup jumper, but she would soon be joined in the box score by the top scorers in the history of women’s college basketball.

The top four women’s NCAA scorers of all time played in Saturday’s contest. Clark, the all-time leading scorer for men and women, scored 3,951 points during her career at Iowa. Plum is second all-time for women (3,527, Washington), followed by Aces rookie Dyaisha Fair (3,403, Syracuse) and Mitchell (3,402, Ohio State).

It was Fair’s WNBA debut. She entered as a substitute for guard Jackie Young late in the fourth quarter, and she came out of the matchup with two assists.

“You just got a lot of talented offensive players out there,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said before the game. “I hope they put on a show.”

When Clark and Plum traded 3-pointers midway through the first quarter, it seemed like a fulfillment of Hammon’s wish.

2. ‘Keep a body in front of a body’

“MVP” chants erupted when Wilson converted on three-point play to give the Aces a 66-53 lead with 3:49 remaining in the fourth quarter. She made a floater despite being fouled by Fever center Temi Fagbenle.

While the moment was impressive, Hammon made it clear pregame that she was holding Wilson to a higher standard on the other side of the ball.

She said she expected Wilson to lead the team through perfect execution of defensive schemes after the Aces took their first loss of the season to the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday. The 98-88 defeat featured a 37-point performance by Mercury guard Kahleah Copper, an offensive explosion the Aces couldn’t afford to give up.

“Quite honestly, I don’t give a damn about our offense,” Hammon said pregame, straining to answer with a hoarse voice. “Play some defense and then we’ll get there.”

Opponents were 43.4 percent from beyond the arc against the Aces entering Saturday, but the Fever were held to 37.1 from the 3-point line, connecting on 10 of their 27 attempts.

“We actually played it,” Wilson said when asked postgame about how the defense got better. “I feel like in the last game’s loss, we didn’t want it. It was like we just thought we could just score, and this league is too good to do that. … I think that loss against Phoenix kind of woke us up. So it didn’t matter who we played this weekend. It was going to be a fact that we could get it done on the defensive end. And Becky screamed and yelled at us.”

Fever coach Christie Sides echoed Hammon’s sentiment before the matchup, saying that her defensive plan for the Aces was to “keep a body in front of a body,” as an answer to all of the screens in the Aces’ offense.

The Fever had a 28-24 lead at the end of the first, but the Aces adjusted for a 46-38 advantage heading into halftime. The Aces had four players in double figures by the end of the game: Wilson, Young (22), Plum (20) and Martin. It was Wilson, Plum and Young’s sixth game all scoring over 20 points, which ties the record for a trio in WNBA history.

It was Martin’s first game in double figures, and she was subsequently included in the Aces’ postgame news conference. Sandwiched with Hammon and Wilson, she said she felt “lucky to be sitting in between two of the GOATs (greatest of all-time).”

Martin added that Wilson is a key to her early success.

“A’ja has instilled a lot of confidence in me. She might not even realize she does. Anytime I mess up, she looks at me, and it’s one of those like, ‘you’re good, it happens’ (looks),” Martin said. “It’s really cool to watch her work. Sometimes I try not to be in awe, but I feel realy grateful to have a leader like her.”

3. Hammon: No hate

Hammon said she doesn’t believe WNBA players hold any bias against Clark, the 2024 No. 1 overall pick.

In response to comments made by NBA star LeBron James and former players-turned-analysts Charles Barkley and JJ Redick, she told reporters following Friday’s practice that she feels the idea that WNBA veterans have any hate toward Clark needs to be put to bed.

“There’s no hate. Our league loves her. We’re just doing our job,” Hammon said. “Even the Black and white thing, knock it off. It’s not there.”

Before Saturday’s game, she offered clarity about the racial element she was alluding to.

“It’s construed as some of our minority Black and brown women are hating on (Caitlin Clark) because she’s white, and that is not the case,” Hammon said. “Let’s take Caitlin out of the picture. What I think is upsetting is not about Caitlin. She’s done stuff that no man or woman, Black or white, has ever done in college basketball. Give that woman her flowers.

“But what it does, is it has highlighted how Black and brown greatness has not been celebrated or valued as much. That’s what I was talking about.”

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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