WASHINGTON — Angel Reese envisioned it for what seemed like forever: playing in Capital One Arena in a WNBA game, surrounded by the people she loved.

Thursday night was a culmination of that dream, in the same arena where she watched a generation of WNBA players sitting at her mom’s hip. After her Chicago Sky beat the Mystics 79-71, she hugged a handful of courtside spectators — including her mom (also named Angel Reese), her brother Julian and LSU coach Kim Mulkey — and retreated into the tunnel as fans gave her a walk-off standing ovation.

It was so much like what she pictured, but it still stretched beyond her means to describe it.

“I really don’t know how to put it into words, because I always imagined being in this moment,” she said. “But I didn’t imagine it to be … just, this graceful.”

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The feeling she was trying to put her finger on might just be freedom.

Reese and the Sky played the Mystics just a day ahead of Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever taking over the region. So much of Reese’s career is wrapped up in her relationship with Clark, maybe the most talked-about rivalry in women’s basketball that seems to have morphed into something beyond the control of either player.

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On Thursday night, the Randallstown native, St. Frances Academy alum and former University of Maryland standout got a stage to herself just a little south of her hometown with an extremely receptive crowd. And she lived up to the billing.

Reese and her coaches will likely scrutinize her play in a game in which she shot 5-for-17 — “I’m still super hard on myself about that,” she said — but her 16-point, 11-rebound performance had a handful of electric moments. A third-quarter steal off fellow rookie Aaliyah Edwards led to a fast break and-one layup, Reese dashing as fast as her Maryland flag-adorned shoes could carry her.

She marked the moment with a mean mug under the basket. The crowd, listed at 10,000, lapped it up.

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“She’s very confident no matter what, which is good,” Sky coach Teresa Witherspoon said. “You cannot imagine how excited I am for what she brings.”

The game was representative of Reese’s rookie campaign so far, a start with clear-cut pros and cons. She has scrapped her way into the top 10 rebounders in the league. She often guards the opponent’s best offensive player. As of Thursday, ESPN ranked her No. 2 among rookies based on her statistical impact (Clark was No. 6, if you must know). Still, she has things she must improve, including her 33.8% shooting mark, a reflection of a jump shot that comes and goes.

Regardless, Reese is already one of the biggest names in the league, owing to her success and exposure in college. The Mystics moved their home game from the 4,200-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena to Capital One Arena based largely on the strength of Reese’s local appeal — though they didn’t open the uppermost level, which they will for Clark’s D.C. debut Friday night.

Reese is learning how to operate in the league she grew up loving, watching fellow St. Frances alum Angel McCoughtry as a little girl. The famously outspoken Reese said, when she started with the Sky, she tried to let the vets show her the way before realizing she could turn up the volume.

“I didn’t say much the first couple practices, which was kinda like new to me because I’m always [bringing] a lot of energy,” she said. “Coach Spoon kinda changed my mindset on that, on being not just a rookie but being a player and coming out to do battle every single day.”

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Sometimes doing battle is playing the role that seems to be carved out for her as a foil to Clark. Because they had a great college rivalry — ending each other’s seasons in the last two NCAA tournaments — that dynamic has carried on to the pros, where their head-to-head meetings are already the among the biggest tickets.

“I know where home is, and Baltimore and Maryland will always be home, and I’ll always be grateful for where I come from.”

Angel Reese

After the first round that was decided by a point and wound up stirring mind-warping national discourse, the second and third Fever-Sky matchups this month will be aired on CBS and ESPN, respectively. The last week has seen Reese’s Sky teammate Chennedy Carter pilloried in national media for her flagrant foul on Clark — a fan with a camera harassing her outside the team hotel Wednesday had to be turned away by team security.

It seems Clark’s shadow is never far away.

There are times when Reese’s typecasting as Clark’s heel feels tiresome, even to her. She broke down after Clark’s Iowa team beat LSU this spring, asking for people to see her humanity. But she also sees the bigger picture that their relationship — which has been (perhaps overambitiously) described as a kind of Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry — brings people to the sport.

Even if some see her as a villain to Clark, she accepts it as long as viewers buy in.

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“I’m just hyped and happy to be a part of this, negative or positive, knowing that people are talking about women’s basketball,” she said. “We grind so much, just knowing this [is] long overdue. So many women in this league have deserved this.”

And Reese? She deserves this. A night free of the national narratives spun around her. Free of the constant comparisons to Clark, the person she’ll likely be measured against (for better and for worse) for the rest of her career.

In Washington, with a crowd of many of her Baltimore friends whom she bought tickets for, she will always get top billing on the marquee. When she plays locally, as she did in December when LSU came to Coppin State, she doesn’t feel she has to play a role for anyone.

“They’ve known me before my 3 million followers; they’ve known me before the national championship,” Reese said. “Knowing that they know who I am and understand who I am is always what matters. I don’t care what other people think of me.

“I know where home is, and Baltimore and Maryland will always be home,” Reese added, “and I’ll always be grateful for where I come from.”