Auerbach: Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese providing fuel for a long-standing WNBA rivalry


INDIANAPOLIS — Even if one or both sides won’t officially acknowledge the existence of a new rivalry, there are always signs — and sounds.

For example, the very loud boos from Indiana Fever fans whenever Chicago Sky rookie Angel Reese went to the free-throw line. Or the very loud cheers from those same fans when Reese (and Kamilla Cardoso) picked up fouls.

The only noise louder than the crowd’s swell when Reese picked up her fifth foul early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game was for the T-shirt cannon.

That’s what burgeoning rivalries are supposed to sound like. They’re marked by good, old-fashioned hate; you root against your rival just as fervently as you root for your favorite team. And the Sky versus the Fever is giving us exactly that.

These teams have played twice so far this season, with Indiana victorious twice in tight games. The first matchup needs few reminders, as the Chennedy Carter hip-check on Caitlin Clark made that game rather memorable (and controversial). Sunday’s game featured Reese swatting for the ball but inadvertently smacking Clark in the head as she attempted a layup, a foul that was correctly upgraded to a Flagrant 1 after a brief officials’ review.

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Angel Reese foul on Caitlin Clark upgraded to flagrant

Those interactions might lead the sports debate shows, but they’re such a minor part of what could very well become one of the best rivalries in the WNBA. This is about Reese and Clark, who have faced off in two of the most memorable NCAA Tournament games in recent history and are now household names. This is about Cardoso, who has already established herself as a force in the paint as a pro despite dealing with an early-season injury. This is about Aliyah Boston, last year’s WNBA Rookie of the Year who is playing her best basketball now. This is about Carter, a game-changer for Chicago when she’s on the court.

This is about a treasure trove of elite young talent, who play in cities located just three hours apart. The teams boast six players combined who were top-four picks in the past four WNBA drafts. These are organizations starved for some success, now with the pieces that can help them build it.

After the Fever’s 91-83 win over the Sky on Sunday, Chicago guard Marina Mabrey said she doesn’t see the matchup as a rivalry, adding that it’s probably only something like that for “new fans.”

But even if it’s fueled by new-to-the-W fans, that’s the point. It’s an obvious entry point for fans of Clark or Reese, or anyone who was part of the record-setting audiences that tuned in for women’s college basketball over the past couple of seasons. The public has already been drawn to these players and their personalities, and they want to see what happens when they continue to clash, even with different names on the front of their jerseys. Fever coach Christie Sides, who spent the first six years of her WNBA coaching career in Chicago, said it is a rivalry that has existed before, but what’s different about now is that it features two “really good, young teams that are trying to figure it out with great players just getting better every game.”

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Clark, for her part, also understands why fans are drawn to this specific matchup. It’s because of her and because of Reese.

“It’s just the emotion and passion that we play with — I think people love to see that,” Clark said. “That’s maybe not something that was always appreciated in women’s sports, and it should be. I think that’s what makes it fun. We’re competitors. That’s the way the game should be. It’s gonna get a little feisty. It’s gonna get a little physical, but at the end of the day, both teams are just trying to win.

“Obviously, I’ve played her for a very long time, and she’s been a tremendous player. It’s been fun getting to compete against (Reese). I think it’s been really good for the game. People just love seeing great matchups, but also, at the same time, the people tune in for these matchups (between us), but then they get to see how amazing these teams are, and then they find new players to support and continue to come back for them, too.”

Or maybe they’ll watch an incredible back-and-forth game and find new players they want to root against. Which is also fine, because that’s sports. Everything means a little bit more if there’s just more fuel added to the fire.

(Photo of Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese: Emilee Chinn / Getty Images)





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