July 3, 2024 

Sights and sounds: Hot game in the desert

The Indiana Fever and Las Vegas Aces sold out their game at the T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday, July 2 as fans watched Hawkeyes reunite.

LAS VEGAS – It has been sweltering in The Valley. But that didn’t stop women’s basketball fans from lining up in the mid-afternoon heat on Tuesday to get into the sold-out game at T-Mobile Arena between the Las Vegas Aces and the Indiana Fever. 

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Many sported jerseys supporting their favorite players. A large amount of fans donned the shirts of #20 Kate Martin and #22 Caitlin Clark, the two former Iowa teammates and best buddies who squared off against each other professionally for the second time since leading the Hawkeyes to their second straight Final Four and National Championship game in April.  

Fans were finally let inside, two hours before tip off. They hovered around the court to catch a glimpse of warmups or even to get a selfie or an autograph from their idols. The Aces organization knew this game would draw a crowd and moved it from their usual home court at Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay to the larger T-Mobile Arena. 

“When the schedule came out and Caitlin declared, they asked if we could move it. I was like, ‘can we make money?’ … Yeah, it was an easy question,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon told reporters after the game. “There’s a lot of eyes on us now. Vegas has been showing up though for the past two or three years, so I’m not surprised.” 

The official attendance was announced at 20,366, the fifth-largest crowd in WNBA history and the biggest since 1999. And while many fans were there supporting the former Hawkeyes, Hammon was quick to point out that the attendance was indicative of the growing interest in the game and all of its players. 

“We love our fans, and it definitely gave us an extra boost. It was pretty loud in here. There’s no doubt that it was loud,” she said. “The more fans, the merrier, whoever you’re coming to watch. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re coming to watch A’ja Wilson, you get to see Aliyah Boston, or if you’re coming to watch Chelsea Gray, you get to see Caitlin Clark, KP [Kelsey Plum] or whoever. The more eyes, the better.”

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“I think at the end of the day, it’s great basketball. It’s growing like crazy, because it’s a great product. There were a couple of times you could feel the building was about to erupt,” Hammon added. “We’re going to show up, whether 10 people show up or 20,000 people show up, we’ll be here working. But it is nice to see these women to be recognized for how great they are and how hard they work and valued the way they should have been valued the whole time, in my opinion.”

If some fans were initially there to see this year’s top pick Caitlin Clark, they were treated to a mostly competitive game in which the Aces eventually pulled away to win 88-69. They also saw Aces guard Kelsey Plum eclipse 3,000 career points with a masterful 34-point performance on 55% shooting, adding six rebounds and five assists. Aces center A’Ja Wilson continued her dominant season with 28 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Clark again flirted with a triple double with 13 points, 11 assists and six rebounds, while her Fever teammate Kelsey Mitchell dropped in 23 points.  

Plum scoffed at a reporter’s comment about the crowd being split much like a college tournament game.

“I don’t know about split. I think this game was sold out a long time ago. We had a ton of fans,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of Iowa fans that love Kate Martin and Megan Gustafson, too. I think we have tremendous fans and it was an amazing environment and I’m just grateful that we got the win.”

The group remains close-knit

It’s not only Iowa fans who steadfastly support players into their professional careers. It’s also the coaching staff.

Just as they did when the Aces and Fever faced off in Las Vegas on May 25, new Iowa head coach Jan Jensen, former head coach Lisa Bluder, and special assistant to the head coach Jenni Fitzgerald showed up for the game with their families. 

“It’s so much fun for me to see my women play against each other,” Bluder, who retired after 24 years as Iowa’s head coach, told The Next as she signed autographs and took selfies with fans before the game. ”Their lifelong dream is to be out here as professional athletes, so it’s an amazing feeling.”

Fitzgerald, who recently retired after coaching with Bluder and Jensen at Drake and Iowa for 32 years, is also proud to watch her former players in the WNBA. 

“It’s incredible to see,” she told The Next. “You’re watching WNBA games left and right now because we have the three; so to see them all together again live, it’s just special.” 

Gustafson, who has played for four different WNBA teams since her NPOY senior year at Iowa in 2019, isn’t surprised at the continued support from her college coaches. 

“It’s amazing. The support that they’ve shown, it’s just been incredible,” Gustafson told The Next. “They’ve always been that way since I got into the league. Always checking in on me, calling me, texting me, visiting. It’s nothing new. They’ve always been that way and I’m just really thankful for their support.”

Kate Martin and Megan Gustafson of the Las Vegas Aces meet up with fellow former Iowa Hawkeye Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Monday, July 1, 2024. Photo courtesy of Jenni Fitzgerald

And while on the court, it is competitive between the former Hawkeyes, off the court it’s all love between the close-knit group. 

On Monday, the night before the game, the players, coaches, friends and family all gathered at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino at a party hosted by Cami Christensen, Westgate president and general manager. Christensen grew up with Jensen in the small town of Kimballton, Iowa.

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The game meant more than just basketball

Another Hawkeye fan in attendance at Tuesday’s game was Bailey Lux, a 14-year-old cancer survivor from Carroll, Iowa, who befriended Clark and Martin while attending Hawkeyes home games as she was treated at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The Aces and Fever teamed up with Make-A-Wish America to bring Lux and her family to Vegas for the game. She attended both teams’ practice and sat court-side at the game. For Lux, meeting up with her favorite Hawkeyes and watch them play each other was an easy choice.  

“Honestly, seeing Caitlin and Kate back together again,” she told The Next, as for why she made the wish. “I love those two, they are my favorites. I just wanted to see them play each other in person.”

She didn’t have a preference as to which team won the game as she cheered on her favorite players. 

Clark, who gave Lux a gift after Tuesday’s shoot-around, told reporters before the game how meaningful the relationship is to her. 

“Those types of interactions and things put life into perspective. At the end of the day, basketball doesn’t matter,” Clark said. “That poor girl has lost her mom already to cancer and then is fighting for her own life. This is what she spent her wish on – how cool is that? To bring her family here and enjoy this opportunity. Also I think it shows the impact of women’s basketball, not only from the standpoint of how good the game is, but also the relationships she’s built with me and Kate. She loves the Aces, she loves the Fever, she loves the WNBA. She wanted to come here and see this game in such a big arena.” 

“It’s something I’m very grateful for to have those opportunities and interactions,” Clark added. “Obviously, that makes a big impact on her but it does in my life, too. It puts my life into perspective. Sometimes basketball can feel like the end of the world to you, and really it’s obviously not; it’s just a game.”

Stathead Stat of the Week

Ariel Atkins scored 36 points for the Mystics on Sunday. She was one point away from tying Elena Delle Donne’s franchise record for the most points in a game.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

Written by Angie Holmes

Angela Holmes is the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) reporter for The Next. Based in the Midwest, she also covers the Big Ten and Big 12.

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