As time ran down the Breslin Center was frantic. Michigan State women's basketball had been going back and forth with Ohio State all night, as the lead had already changed eight times.
The fans were screaming, coach Suzy Merchant was in a referee's ear and Ohio State’s freshman guard Madison Greene headed to the free-throw line.
With 23 seconds left, Greene had a chance to put a two point margin between the two teams.
Everything was hectic – except in sophomore guard Nia Clouden’s head. There she had only one thought.
“The only thing going through my mind was that we needed to win and we had to do whatever it took,” Clouden said.
Greene sunk both free throws and Merchant called a timeout. Clouden’s thoughts didn’t change, she knew her jersey would be called on again. After missing every shot she took in the first half, Clouden turned things around in the second, scoring 11 points leading into the last minute of the game. She was ready to get the ball.
“I kind of expected it," Clouden said. "I was just trying to stay calm and execute the play well. Be able to get to a spot on the floor where I was able to take the shot and hit it.
“I’m just thinking that we need to make a play and score the ball quickly, because if we would’ve took the last shot and maybe it wouldn’t have went in, we wouldn’t have been able to get the rebound, so I was just thinking score as fast as we can.”
Clouden drove to the right block, stopped and turned. Fading back and swarmed by scarlet jerseys, Clouden put up the jumper.
Flashback to Clouden’s freshman year, everything leading up to this moment and what had to happen for Clouden to get the ball in her hands with 23 seconds left and a chance to win the game.
Rooming with then-redshirt sophomore forward Mardrekia Cook. Clouden was far quieter, but Cook saw her potential. In the past year Clouden grew into a leader on the team right before Cook’s eyes.
“She’s amazing, I think she’s took on the leading scorer role, one of the most impactful players on this team, she’s worked on her defense," Cook said. "She’s just transitioned so much from her freshman year, like mentally, she talks more ... I'm just so proud of her, I think she grew up so much.
“It’s kind of hard, she could've got lackadaisical and happy with what she did last year, but this year I think she took on a leadership role and she knows she has to step up.”
Clouden instilled confidence into her teammates that she can take the big shots, so as Clouden drove into the paint, down by two with the clock draining, Cook saw the transition she made first hand. She isn’t surprised Clouden took that step.
“I could (imagine it), because she’s just such a really good player like she can score the ball, but the fact that she has been the main person, the go-to person and she’s been the most consistent on the team, it really just shows it really doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just whether you want it or not,” Cook said.
Back to the present. Merchant looked on. The shot Clouden took wasn’t the exact one they drew up, but she was OK with it.
“She’s our go-to … We ran that pin-down screen, went a little too soon and didn’t really get a good screen on it, so she was a little further from the rim than we wanted her on that last play," Merchant said. "Nia did a good job of pivoting, what not, finding a way to get that shot off and get fouled,” Merchant said.
“She just finds a way.”
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Clouden did find a way. She put the jumper up, as whistles blew, she knew she was going to the line, but it would be for an and-one opportunity.
She tied the game and the lead rested on her shoulders as she made her way to the line.
Clouden didn’t falter. The free throw gave the Spartans a lead with 13 seconds remaining.
Getting back on defense, they needed one last stand.
Greene lost the ball, fumbling it around, Cook tipped the ball into the open court, Clouden made another play. Scooping up her roommate's tip, she took the ball back with six seconds left.
“I think I was just in the right place at the right time," Clouden said. "I think it was (Cook) who tipped it on the drive and then I was the closest person to pick it up. I tried to run away, but they caught me so I ended up going to the line."
Sinking her next two free throws, she helped secure a 68-65 Spartan win, as Ohio State would only have time for a long desperation shot that didn’t find its’ way to the rim.
Clouden bounced back from a rough first half to be the leader the team needed to stay perfect at home.
“There’s some kids that do that and forget about them, you might as well not even play them in the second half," Merchant said. "If you’re a really good player you don’t think about what happened two games ago, last shot, it’s next play mentality.
“I think that’s Clouden’s thing and I think she doesn’t mind being in situations where if the team needs her to take the shot, she’s gonna take the shot and I think deep down she knows she should.”
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