ARLINGTON, Texas — In front of a sold-out crowd of 6,251 at UT Arlington’s College Park Center, 2024 No. 1 WNBA pick Caitlin Clark made her unofficial professional debut Friday evening, scoring 21 points in the Fever’s narrow 79-76 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Wings.

The NCAA’s all-time leading scorer scored 11 of Indiana’s first 19 points before finishing with 16 in the first half, highlighted by a stepback 3-pointer against veteran Natasha Howard. She went scoreless in the third quarter and sat on the bench for much of the frame after picking up her third and fourth fouls in quick succession.

Upon re-entering the game in the fourth, Clark hit another 3-pointer, her fifth of the night and found Aliyah Boston for an assist on the pick-and-roll. A “welcome to the WNBA” moment came with the game tied and less than 30 seconds to play when Howard blocked Clark’s layup attempt with the shot clock dwindling.

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Clark’s 21 points (6 for 15 shooting, 5 for 13 from 3) tied for the game high with Dallas rookie Jaelyn Brown, and she also contributed 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 5 turnovers. NaLyssa Smith added 20 points for the Fever.

“My biggest goal coming into tonight was to continue to be myself, play aggressive,” Clark said. “I thought that’s what I did. I think there’s a lot to be proud of.”

Newcomers may have come out to catch a glimpse of Clark, but Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale ensured the hometown team came up on top, scoring Dallas’ final seven points and sinking a game-winning, step-back 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds to play. Clark’s off-balanced final shot at the buzzer in an effort to tie the game fell short.

It was a huge day for sports in the Metroplex. In downtown Dallas the NBA’s Mavericks hosted a first-round series-clinching Game 6 victory against the LA Clippers, while the NHL’s Stars were in their own first-round Game 6 battle in Las Vegas, which they dropped. Even still, scores of fans filtered to Arlington with signs for Clark or wearing No. 22.

Despite being from the visiting team, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer received a thunderous cheer as she was introduced as part of the Fever’s starting five, as did fellow former No. 1 pick Boston. The crowd, while mostly pro-Wings, cheered plenty for Clark, especially as she hit four of her eight 3-point attempts in the first half, but stayed engaged as the teams traded the lead seven times and saw nine ties.

“You couldn’t ask for a better game, really, for women’s basketball to kick off this [WNBA] year,” Clark said. “A tremendous game coming down to the wire, both teams competing. That’s going to be the story of the entire year.”

Twenty-five miles away from where Clark’s fame took off in the spring of 2023 with a mesmerizing Final Four run with the Hawkeyes, the rookie sensation hit her first two shot attempts of her pro career, both 3-pointers — the first on a baseline out-of-bounds play where Clark’s defender lost her, and with Wings fans still on their feet waiting for the hometown squad to get on the board.

“I was able to get a pretty clean look for my first shot,” she said. “It’s always nice to see your first shot go in when you’re a shooter.”

Before the game Clark said her main goal for this early WNBA action was to stay true to herself; afterwards, she thought she mostly did that by being aggressive and playing hard, while acknowledging she could clean up on turnovers and that there’ll be an adjustment to the WNBA’s physicality. Head coach Christie Sides said Clark looked “gassed” and asked for a sub at the end of the first quarter.

It’ll be a learning process too, Clark and Sides both added, as Clark gets accustomed to playing with and against such high-level talent. The point guard reflected postgame she doesn’t have to create everything herself and can instead use screens from her teammates or set some herself to make life easier.

“She works really hard to get some shots that she doesn’t have to work as hard for anymore,” Sides said.

Wings coach Latricia Trammel, meanwhile, attributed Clark’s quieter second half to an uptick in her team’s defensive communication and intensity following a “passive” start.

Those tuning in for Clark also were treated to the memorable performances from Brown and Ogunbowale (19), who paced the Wings.

“I had a horrible shooting day [9 for 24, 1 for 7 from 3] but that’s why it’s a team, that’s why it’s not golf,” Ogunbowale said. “People like Jaelyn, the rest of the team, they kept it together, and I was able to come in and at the end hit that 3, the only 3 I hit of the game actually. But, it’s basketball, you just gotta shake it off and keep shooting.”

The Fever are hoping Clark and the rest of their young core, which includes Boston and Smith, the 2022 No. 2 pick, will lift the franchise to its first postseason berth since 2016, franchise- and league-great Tamika Catchings’ final season before her retirement.

Indiana has a final tune-up Thursday against the Atlanta Dream in Indianapolis before taking on the Connecticut Sun on the road May 14 in their regular season opener.

“There’s a lot of good to take away from it. At the same time, it’s preseason game, so don’t get too disappointed by it,” Clark said. “Just go back and watch the film, learn from it, and get ready for our next one.”

Information From The Associated Press was used in this report.