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Raucous crowd roars its approval for Caitlin Clark in her home debut with Fever, an 83-80 win

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Caitlin Clark walked into her new home arena Thursday night with No. 22 shirts and jerseys peppered from floor to ceiling.

She left as a first-time WNBA winner.

A late-arriving but louder-than-usual crowd roared during her official introduction to Fever fans and again when Clark made her first basket, a layup with 7:00 left in the first quarter. The cheers grew when she completed a three-point play a few minutes later and hit a crescendo when she finally made a long 3-pointer from the edge of the fieldhouse logo late in the third quarter.

Yes, Clark successfully navigated the city’s most anticipated rookie debut since Peyton Manning played for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 1998 even though it wasn’t quite the start most expected.

In an 83-80 preseason victory over the Atlanta Dream, Clark had 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and six turnovers, going 4 of 12 from the field and 2 of 9 on 3s in 31 minutes.

“It was a lot of fun, I thought they were loud, I thought they were into it. It was fun to see,” Clark said following her home debut. “This is a preseason game on a Thursday night and there’s 13,000 people here. I think that just shows you what it’s going to be like for us all season. It’s going to help us.”

The crowd certainly made a difference Thursday as Clark helped the Fever rally from an early double-digit deficit following last week’s preseason opening loss at Dallas.

One girl held a sign that read “Welcome to Indy Caitlin! — Caitlin M.”

Officially, the attendance came in at 13,028 — nearly three times larger than the slightly more than 4,000 per game Indiana averaged for its 20 regular-season home games in 2023. Afterward, Clark found close friend and former college teammate Gabbie Marshall and the two took a photo together.

Most of the fans came to see Clark — even for a rescheduled contest.

Indiana was initially scheduled to play Friday but moved the game when the NBA announced the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks would play Game 3 of their best-of-seven series in that time slot.

For Clark, the WNBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick, it’s been a quick transition from playing college ball a month ago to the pro style. And this game didn’t come with as much pomp and circumstance as might have been expected.

Clark went through her pregame warmups quietly and focused as music blared and the stands started filling up. But once the game started, Clark & Co. were all business.

“I don’t think I was that effective, honestly,” Clark said. “I thought more than anything I did a really good job of passing the ball, finding my teammates. Obviously, I would have liked to have made a couple more 3s, but sometimes that’s how you shoot it.”

The fault didn’t fall entirely on Clark’s shoulders.

Opponents are naturally game-planning to slow down the top scorer in NCAA Division I history. Atlanta’s ploy was to challenge Clark with hard closeouts, multiple defenders forcing the ball out of her hands and physical play intended to get Clark off her spot.

The result: Clark struggled early as the Fever fell behind, and her teammates struggled to convert her crisp passes into points. But they also got a glimpse into what this season could be.

“She pushes the pace for us, she gets the ball where it needs to be, if you run the floor you’ve got to look up because the ball is coming,” said Nalyssa Smith, who had a game-high 21 points. “She can spread the floor, everybody can score and she’s looking to pass the ball.”

Through it all Clark was both a big hit and a welcome change for a franchise in search of a turnaround. She’s generated more interest and attention in women’s basketball than most of her predecessors, giving her a platform few others possess and she’s taking full advantage of it.

Her presence, coupled with others in perhaps the most heralded rookie class in WNBA history, prompted league commissioner Cathy Engelbert to announce earlier this week she’s poised to spend $50 million on charter flights over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, the curiosity surrounding Clark has some opponents moving games to larger venues to accommodate ticket sales and a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2016 will now have 36 of its 40 regular-season games on national television.

For Clark, playing in front of full arena has become the norm. For her teammates and coaches, this could be the start of something bigger than they could have imagined. Especially when it comes to a generational-type player such as Clark, who has fully embraced her new home city.

“For me, this is the best part of it,” Clark said. “You’ve got to go out and compete every single night and if one night is not good for us, you have an opportunity to come back a couple days later and respond. I think this group will be ready (for the regular season) and everybody’s excited.”

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AP WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball

By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer

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