With Angel Reese vs. Caitlin Clark and Sky vs. Fever, WNBA has burgeoning rivalry

On Sunday, the two young stars will meet for the third time this season in a matchup that quickly has turned into the league’s most entertaining rivalry.

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Chicago Sky player Angel Reese reacts after fouling Indiana Fever player Caitlin Clark during their game June 16 in Indianapolis.

Angel Reese (left) reacts after fouling Caitlin Clark during their game June 16 in Indianapolis.

Emilee Chinn/Getty

Only six players drafted outside the lottery have been named WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Three of them earned the award in the last five years.

Coming into the 2024 season, one player was considered a lock for the award — Fever guard Caitlin Clark, the No. 1 overall pick. But Sky rookie Angel Reese, who’s off to a historic start, could become the seventh non-lottery draftee to win the award.

On Sunday, the two young stars will meet for the third time this season in a matchup that quickly has turned into the league’s most entertaining rivalry.

But don’t tell the players that.

“I’m pretty sure the only people who view this as a rivalry are all of you,” Clark said with a grin Friday after the Fever’s fourth consecutive win.

After the Fever practiced Saturday at Wintrust Arena, Clark said she understands rivalries as well as anyone, having had a brother who played football at Iowa State while she was making history at Iowa.

But Clark doesn’t feel what’s brewing between the Sky and Fever is at that level yet.

“There’s an energy and excitement about the people on the floor,” Clark said. “But I think rivalries take time to build. It’ll certainly get there eventually.

“But I certainly get why people see that just because of college and the great battles that [Reese and I] had. But I think the energy in the air is more about the excitement because we’re two of the most followed athletes in our league.”

The history between them goes all the way back to their freshman year. Reese spent her first two seasons at Maryland, battling in the Big Ten with Clark.

In 2021, Reese’s Maryland squad sent Clark’s Iowa team home in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament with a 104-84 thumping. Iowa went 0-3 against Maryland during Clark’s freshman and sophomore seasons.

When Reese transferred to LSU, the stakes were raised with back-to-back meetings in the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The first was for the 2023 NCAA title, which catapulted the women’s game culturally. It was the most watched women’s basketball game at the time, averaging 12.3 million viewers. When Reese unabashedly mimicked Clark’s “You Can’t See Me” celebration, pointing to her ring finger as she followed her around the court, the entire hoops world was thrown into a tizzy.

Reese was berated by fans, pundits and even politicians, and it was obvious the attacks had little to do with her simply one-upping Clark’s gesture. People were irate by a young Black woman’s competitive fire.

By the time they met again in the Elite Eight a year later, both fan bases had made up their minds about the other player, stoking the rivalry flames further. This time, 16.1 million viewers tuned in as Iowa beat LSU 94-87 to advance to the Final Four and eventually back to the title game, where it would lose to undefeated South Carolina.

Geography is now the propellant, moving this rivalry forward.

When Reese fell to No. 7 in the 2024 draft, the immediate discussions centered on how she and No. 3 overall pick Kamilla Cardoso would transform the Sky in years to come. But lying just beneath the surface was a storyline that has the potential to transform the league.

Cardoso and Reese represent the Sky’s future. Clark and Aliyah Boston represent the Fever’s.

When you combine the fact that the Sky and Fever have been considered rivals since the late 2000s with the history between these two sets of young stars, it’s enough to make a person wonder if the WNBA planned it this way.

“I spent my first six years in Chicago,” Fever coach Christie Sides said ahead of the team’s second meeting June 16. “It’s been a rivalry for quite some time. Two really good teams, two young teams just trying to figure it out with great players. So, yeah, for sure, this is definitely a good rivalry.”

The Fever have a 2-0 edge on the Sky in the Reese/Clark era. There was no love lost in both games.

On June 1, guard Chennedy Carter hip-checked Clark as she waited for an inbound pass. On the broadcast, Reese could be seen jumping up from the bench and cheering as Carter walked away from Clark after the foul. The play, which initially was ruled an away-from-the-ball foul, resulted in one free throw for Clark.

The Sky lost the game by a point, and a day later, the league upgraded the foul to a flagrant 1.

In their next meeting — the most watched WNBA game in 23 years with 2.25 million viewers — there was more evidence of a rivalry. Beyond the viewership, there was the fact that every time Reese went to the foul line, Fever fans booed, which she, at one point, responded to by blowing the crowd a kiss.

There was also the game itself. Neither team led by more than single digits, and there was another flagrant 1. This time, Reese made a play for the ball as Clark went up for a layup and inadvertently hit her in the head.

What followed was another weeklong discussion from new voices in the WNBA space, eager to call the play anything but what it was: a physical basketball play.

On Sunday, there’s sure to be more fireworks in Clark’s first game in Chicago since high school. It’s the first opportunity Sky fans will have to show the Fever what this rivalry means to them.

With Reese and Clark as close as they are in the early race for Rookie of the Year, it brings another layer of competitive excitement to an already hefty WNBA rivalry.

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