Liberty Prove They're Title Threats Despite Caitlin Clark's Dazzling New York Debut

The Indiana rookie played the best game of her young WNBA career thus far, but received another stark reminder of the talent at the top end of the league.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark looked the part of WNBA star in her first trip to New York despite a loss to the Liberty.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark looked the part of WNBA star in her first trip to New York despite a loss to the Liberty. / Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A mix of cheers and boos blanketed Barclays Center Saturday as Caitlin Clark was announced as the final member of the Indiana Fever’s starting lineup. It was the Iowa sensation’s first time playing in New York, a stage befitting basketball’s brightest star. And Clark met the moment, putting together the most comprehensive performance of her three-game-long pro career, logging 22 points, eight assists and six rebounds. But the New York Liberty sent a convincing reminder that this was their show, their home opener—not the Fever’s, and not Clark’s. Last season’s runner-ups defeated the Fever 91–80, just 48 hours after spoiling Indiana’s home opener in Gainbridge Fieldhouse, with a walloping 102–66 victory Tuesday night.

Sandy Brondello’s group set a blistering pace out of the gate, shooting 66.7% from beyond the arc through the first two quarters and setting a franchise record for the most three-pointers in a single half (12). All five of the Liberty’s starters ended in the double figures, led by Breanna Stewart with 24 points. Jonquel Jones, who received a rapturous ovation following the game, posted a double double with 14 points and 12 rebounds, while Sabrina Ionescu commanded the deluge from deep, making four of her nine attempted threes. Brondello was also sure to sing the praises of Betnijah Laney-Hamilton following back-to-back defensive assignments on Clark. 

“She hangs her hat on playing defense, guarding the best player every night,” the Liberty head coach said after the victory.

It was a stellar team win against a young, and relatively inexperienced, Fever side. New York, in particular, punished Indiana in transition, outscoring the Fever in fast break points 28–2. “Our chemistry is building and it’s showing out there,” said Jones. Conversely, Christie Sides’s team has been tasked with building their proverbial plane mid-flight. The attention and scrutiny surrounding Clark has only made that charge more challenging. "The media needs to give her some time and grace to develop as a player. Her impact will be tremendous as she grows and matures,” said Jones, echoing a sentiment shared earlier in the day by Brondello.

“She’s a great young talent and you have to remember she's a young talent,” said the Liberty coach. “It’s hard coming in as a No. 1. When is the last time a No. 1 pick has come in and dominated from the start?”

In an important WNBA coming-of-age moment, Clark can now cross off her first game in the Big Apple—in front of a record-breaking 17,735 fans no less. “The atmosphere was incredible,” said Clark. “The Liberty definitely deserve this crowd … So it was fun to play here in New York for the first time, play in front of this environment. I think that just brings out the best in a competitor. I love playing in front of these environments.” 

The stars showed up for the sell-out occasion too, with South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, WNBA legend Sue Bird, soccer icon Megan Rapinoe, tennis idol Bille Jean King, NBA luminary Pau Gasol and Liberty mainstay Jason Sudeikis rounding out celebrity row. Even Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager of the Today Show were in the building, chatting with Stewart and Clark ahead of the game. 

“I’d like it to be a sellout every night,” said Stewart. “The way I describe how it feels, in the third, when we’re a little bit tired and trying to push through, our fans give us more energy. We feed off that, it’s what home-court advantage is.” As for Brondello, she’s happy women’s basketball “is getting its flowers, finally.” 

As much as the women’s basketball landscape has changed over the last year, Saturday underscored that much has stayed the same too. New York’s 2024 home opener ended in the same manner as last season’s, with Stewart leading all scorers (albeit not with a career-high 45 points), and with chants of “M-V-P” raining down from around the arena—a stark reminder that despite the noise, on the court, superteams like the Liberty are still the ones to beat.


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Clare Brennan

CLARE BRENNAN

Clare Brennan is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women’s sports. Her work includes coverage of the WNBA and women’s soccer; and she previously wrote for Just Women’s Sports.