The Spartans were up big over Illinois halfway through the third quarter on the back of Nia Clouden’s 28-point scoring output. As she drives down the floor in transition, Clouden rose and absorbed the contact to finish at the rim and complete the and-one.
As she turned to the sideline, Janai Crooms looked at her and did the traditional Russell Westbrook put the baby to sleep celebration.
The Spartans have something a lot of teams don’t have, and that’s a Batman, a confident Batman that’s firing on all cylinders.
“I feel really confident, and I feel really comfortable out there,” Clouden said. “I think that really just comes from knowing that my teammates trust me and knowing that the coaches trust me to do what I feel like is right when I’m out there on the court.”
However, in the team’s four losses, Clouden was missing her Robin, someone who could score and contribute at a high level alongside her as she puts up points like the fate of East Lansing and Michigan State basketball is in her hands.
“She’s been consistent, and I think she’s just someone that we can rely on,” coach Suzy Merchant said. “When we have our ups and downs, sometimes we don’t know who our second and third scorer is going to be, but we always know Nia is going to give us something.”
The first person Merchant looks to to try and fill that role is guard Alyza Winston, who after starting the season hot on offensive has struggled as of late, as she has failed to reach a double-digit scoring outing since Jan. 10 against Nebraska.
“Alyza Winston has to get it going,” Merchant said on her radio show. “She has to be the Robin to Batman, which Nia is Batman. She's just been for five games sort of just not producing the way we know she can. She's very capable.”
Since her back-to-back-to-back outings of scoring 19 or more points against Minnesota, Iowa and Central Michigan, defenses have begun to key in on Winston, especially closing out on her when she has open opportunities from three.
When Merchant places Winston next to Clouden, it brings another point guard on the floor for the Spartans. With her three-point shooting and blazing speed, Winston can be a true problem for defenders at times.
Unfortunately for Merchant, the production hasn’t been the same, forcing her to make a change as she replaced Winston for Moira Joiner in the starting lineup.
“We changed the starting lineup and took Alyza out, mostly production-wise we needed to make a change there,” Merchant said. “One thing Mo does is she can shoot the three-ball but she also does a good job defensively. She’s a bigger guard. I think she really understands off-ball defense. You saw her get her hands on a lot of balls. She rebounds. She’s a better defensive rebounder at times too.”
Joiner’s ability to be more of a shooting guard in the starting lineup makes for a more of Batman and Robin pair that can do what the other person can’t rather than the Winston-Clouden pairing that brings a one-two scoring punch in a similar fashion. Regardless, Clouden enjoys playing with either and feels that both can bring great qualities to the floor.
“The main difference is Mo is less of a point guard than Alyza, so I’ll be on the ball a little bit more when playing with Mo instead of Alyza,” Clouden said. “I love playing with them both. They both bring really good things to the game. Both are great shooters, both good defenders. I’m really happy to play with either of them at any time.”
The other player perhaps brings a more old school of a one-two punch in Alisia Smith, who has been the starting center for the Spartans since they returned from their two-week pause.
"What I like about her is that she's pretty versatile," Merchant said. "She can hit that 15-18 footer, certainly when she gets fouled, she didn't tonight, but I think against Wisconsin she shot 13 free throws against them and was 11-for-13. So, she knows how to get fouled, and she's working on her finishing skills."
Merchant has been stressing that the team needs to do a better job of feeding the interior the ball down low for good looks, and the team has responded with Smith scoring double figures in all but one game since entering the starting lineup.
“It’s really fun,” Smith said. “I really like playing with these guards because they know how and when to get me the ball and when not to get me the ball. These guards are awesome, and I enjoy playing with them a lot.”
Smith sees that scoring void that the team is missing on a nightly basis, and since entering the starting lineup, she’s looking to fill that void.
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“I just know that we need more consistent scorers off of Nia, playing off of Nia,” Smith said. “I’ve been trying to step up and be that post presence down there with Tai (Taiyier Parks).”
Clouden has seen the work Smith has put in since getting in the starting lineup and loves what she brings to the offense.
“She’s brought a lot, especially from the post spot,” Clouden said. “She runs the floor really well in transition, and she posts up well on the block, and it’s really easy to get it to her because she posts up really well. She just brings versatility on offense, she can step out, shoot the jump shot, hit a three, drive and post-up. I feel like she’s just brought a lot of things to our offensive game that we didn’t always have before.”
The Spartans have more tough matchups upcoming with No. 22 Northwestern at 3 p.m. on Sunday. With the Spartans looking to get back into the NCAA Tournament and compete at a high level with the number of role players they have, they have the bat signal up as they search for their Robin.
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