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Game notes: Takeaways from Michigan State women's basketball win at Minnesota

December 10, 2020

Wednesday’s 81-68 win over Minnesota had a whole lot of positives for the Michigan State women’s basketball team.

Junior guard Nia Clouden and sophomore guard Alyza Winston both went for at least 20 points, redshirt junior guard Janai Crooms made her debut in green and white after receiving a transfer waiver. Statistically, the Spartans totaled 17 steals, MSU put up 20 more shots than Minnesota with 17 offensive rebounds, all while winning their Big Ten season opener on the road in a fan-less Williams Arena.

There is a lot to digest from Wednesday night, but there are three things that stand out the most and can be taken into the rest of the season.

Nia Clouden is deserving of her preseason honors

The hype was there for Nia Clouden going into the 2020 season as she was selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team. She made a jump between her freshman and sophomore year averaging 14.5 points, 3.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2019. Through the now three games of the 2020 season, Clouden looks like she has yet again made another jump.

In a now expanded role as a junior, Clouden is averaging 18.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game.

She is a do-it-all point guard. She is a more than capable scorer that can score at all three levels while also dishing out assists to her teammates. Her career-high of points in a game (28) was almost reached Wednesday night when she put up 25 points, giving Minnesota problems all night long.

“Obviously Clouden is one of the best players in this conference. She’s just a tremendous player,” Minnesota head coach Lindsay Whalen said postgame. “Everyone knows she likes to go left, but she has a nice little hesitation comeback right that is just hard to guard.”

Clouden started the game scorching hot, putting up 14 points in the first quarter on 5-5 shooting. Minnesota began to throw a mix of defenses such as half-court traps and zones at Clouden to try and slow her scoring down. It worked, she only scored 11 points the rest of the game, but her mature and calm playing style left her unfazed. She continued to unselfishly distribute the basketball to her teammates. There was no panic when she got double-teamed, exactly what MSU head coach Suzy Merchant needs from her starting point guard.

The defensive side has also been a pleasant progression by Clouden. Clouden recorded five steals, a career-high, versus Minnesota and now averages three steals per game. The active hands by her and teammates helped contribute to fastbreak transitions that resulted in 30 points by the Spartans off of Minnesota turnovers.

Merchant said before the season that Clouden had been working on her shooting efficiency and thought that was a key to the next level for her. Clouden shot perhaps a concerning 38.1 percent from the field in 2019, but she has shown a sign of improvement in the young season shooting 52.5 percent from the field as well as 41.7 percent from three.

If Clouden is able to continue at this pace, she could be a really dangerous player for opposing teams.

Alyza Winston is the future at point guard

I know, I just went on a rant on how great Clouden is at point guard for MSU. She deserves it. But, like Cassius Winston, eventually, the reigns of point guard must be handed down and Alyza Winston looks like she may be the heir to Clouden.

Last year as a freshman, Winston did not play much — only 8.6 minutes per game. In her limited time though, she was efficient as a shooter.

After missing the first game of 2020, Winston played well off the bench versus Detroit Mercy scoring 11 points on 5-8 shooting. On Wednesday though, she played the best game of her career in green and white. Serving her role off the bench, the sophomore drained 20 points on 8-12 shooting and 4-7 from beyond the arc.

“She hit some open shots and she got her confidence going. She is somebody who obviously comes in off their bench and wants to have an impact. If she plays well she is going to play more and tonight she got her confidence going,” Whalen said.

To go along with her shooting, she also has extremely quick dribble moves that allow her to create a shot or drive to the hoop. The shooting form is not very pretty, but as long as she keeps draining them at a high rate, it is not a big problem at all.

Winston played well defensively too versus Minnesota earning a 139.7 defensive rating, which was third on the team behind center Lauren Rewers and guard Laurel Jacqmain who played a combined six minutes Wednesday night.

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If she continues to knock down shots, it will be hard for Merchant to not give her minutes every game even with Clouden still on the team.

This team is capable of making noise in the Big Ten

Wednesday’s win was an impressive one for the Spartans. They jumped out to an early 16-2 lead that was then extended to a 43-23 going into the second quarter. The Golden Gophers kept fighting and eventually cut the lead to single digits. Despite the score, it felt like Michigan State was in a commanding position all game.

Every time Minnesota went on a run, Merchant and the Spartans had an answer. Whether it was calling a timeout at the right time, making a substitution, or relying on her veteran players to make the adjustment themselves, it kept working.

That is a great sign of a team that maybe feels like they do not get enough respect in the Big Ten. Minnesota, while not in the top-five of the preseason Big Ten rankings, is no cakewalk. They are coming off a 16-15 season and are coached by former WNBA star Lindsay Whalen. Good teams are able to make adjustments in the middle of games, and that’s exactly what MSU did.

They have their star guard in Nia Clouden, a now experienced Spartan who knows how to control the tempo of the game. Forward Mardrekia Cook is back from an Achilles tear in 2019 and appears to have no physical impediments especially on the defensive side of the ball. Alyza Winston looks like a much-improved player through her first two games played this season. That’s not to mention the depth of the team and reliable coaching of Suzy Merchant.

Michigan State will still need to improve in a few areas, but they have a chance of doing something special this year in the Big Ten.

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