Saturday, July 11, 2020

Column: 'We need Batman and Batman': How Michigan State women's basketball can end its season strong

The Spartans have a chance to end their season with a bang, but need Taryn McCutcheon and Nia Clouden

February 17, 2020
<p>Sophomore guard Nia Clouden (24) pushes past a defender during the women&#x27;s basketball game against Rutgers at the Breslin Center on Feb. 13, 2020</p>

Sophomore guard Nia Clouden (24) pushes past a defender during the women's basketball game against Rutgers at the Breslin Center on Feb. 13, 2020

Photo by Connor Desilets | The State News

It’s hard to be critical of Michigan State women's basketball after the kind of luck it has had. At times, the Spartans have been down to six scholarship players due to injuries and have had to throw inexperienced freshmen and walk-ons into the heat of the Big Ten season.

Taryn McCutcheon, their senior captain and point guard, has been playing with a broken finger for nearly two months. Their top forwards, in senior Victoria Gaines and redshirt junior Mardrekia Cook, are out for the year. On top of it all, their other backcourt threat senior Shay Colley hasn’t played 10 games this year.

After dropping five straight, and below .500, it looked like their season was over. They said that it felt like a cloud was cast over them, like they were cursed.

But after a 12-point comeback win against Rutgers, energy is back in the Breslin Center and it might be time to raise the bar, just a little.

MSU men's basketball coach Tom Izzo has always been one to throw in the occasional superhero reference when talking about his team, usually referencing Batman, skipping Robin and going straight to “The Butler.” After the Spartans' win against Rutgers, women's coach Suzy Merchant pulled a page out of his book, but instead of needing Batman and a sidekick, she needs something else.

“We don’t really need Batman and Robin, we need Batman and Batman,” Merchant said.

“If we’re gonna win, those guys are gonna be out there and they're gonna be making plays.”

Merchant is right. McCutcheon said she wants to go out on a high note. Her partner in the backcourt, sophomore Nia Clouden, said that she thinks this team needs to grow up, herself included.

They both need to flip the switch. 

In a season like this, ending above .500 is an accomplishment, making a push in the Big Ten Tournament is too. This can all happen, but they need “Batman and Batman."

McCutcheon has been playing with a broken finger, but she said it’s starting to get better, or maybe she just doesn’t feel it when the Breslin Center is surging.

“Honestly, I don’t really feel different, I hit some shots today," McCutcheon said. "I just think my teammates have been encouraging me nonstop to keep shooting, because they know that I can hit shots.

“I think the confidence made my finger feel better.”

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McCutcheon is at her best when she is facilitating for her team. She has averaged 3.3 assists per game — not bad considering her team is shooting less than 40 percent on the season. 

Combine that with 1.25 steals per game and 10.9 points per game, she has been a consistent force. With a healthy finger, all that’s left is to take it to the next level.

Her first step to Batman is to keep the energy going. For her game, and the team, she needs to come out with energy. She can end her career in East Lansing the way she wants to.

It all starts with energy.

“We’re lucky that we have the next home game, so we can get some more energy, hopefully, going into that game and then we can learn to carry that to the road,” McCutcheon said.

“I don’t really know the answer, but I know that energy helps. Hopefully we can bring that into the next couple games and then take it into the tournament.”

For Batman two, prolific scorer Nia Clouden, she needs to do just that: score.

Clouden has surpassed 20 points six times this season and a season-high 28 against Notre Dame, but since Big Ten play she hasn’t been the same shooter.

She has seen her average drop from 16 points per game right before conference play to 14.3 now. She can still score, posting 17 points against Purdue and Maryland during their losing streak, but a majority of her points have been from the free throw line. 

In the last six games, Clouden has shot 28.7 percent from the field.

Batman can’t shoot 28.7 percent.

Merchant and Clouden have both said she has a way of talking herself into slumps.

For this injury plagued-team to function to their potential, as they did at Rutgers, Clouden has to talk herself out of her slump and stay out.

The Spartans have five games left, with the best of the Big Ten already behind them. No team left in their schedule is in the top five of the conference and three of the teams sit below them.

Three of the Spartans games are in the Breslin, the same Breslin that erupted and pushed them to a comeback win on Thursday. The same Breslin where they are 9-2.

Three winnable games in East Lansing, three more chances in Gotham.

Away, they have Purdue and Illinois. Purdue is at .500 in the league and Illinois has 11 conference losses.

This isn’t a National Championship team, it’s probably not a team that even makes the tournament, but with an easier schedule ahead, and riding on the wave of a momentous win, this young, injured team can end on a high-note, but they need Batman and Batman.

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