Sunday, October 24, 2021

The duel in Ann Arbor: Naz Hillmon and Nia Clouden's rivalry rekindles

February 19, 2021
<p>Freshman forward Naz Hillmon (00) goes go a lay-up on Jan. 27, 2019 at the Crisler Arena. The Spartans would defeat the Wolverines 77-73.</p>

Freshman forward Naz Hillmon (00) goes go a lay-up on Jan. 27, 2019 at the Crisler Arena. The Spartans would defeat the Wolverines 77-73.

Photo by Kara Keating | The State News

Any rivalry between two teams just means more when two stars can battle it out for the bragging rights of that season whether it has been Magic Johnson and Larry Bird or Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

On Tuesday night between Michigan State and Michigan, it was Naz Hillmon and Nia Clouden, who combined for 65 points and 15 rebounds in their first and possibly only matchup of the season. While the Wolverines prevailed in Ann Arbor, this game was an absolute battle between two of the conference’s brightest stars.

“It was really fun to be able to compete with her, she’s a really great player,” Clouden said. “She has some really good game. I was happy it was a competitive game, but I wish we could have come out with a win.”

In the first half, it was all Hillmon as she started the first quarter alone with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting as she established her position in the paint for easy looks at the rim.

“Naz got away from us in the first quarter, badly,” Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant said. “We were doubling her, trying to mix it up where we did or didn’t, but it didn't matter. I mean she's just an absolute beast, she works her butt off and she plays harder than anyone in the country. That's a fact. She ducks in, seals, sprints the floor and goes for every rebound. She's leaned out, lost weight, it looks like she's in great physical condition.”

Finishing out the half, Hillmon was outpacing her performance against her other rival in Ohio State, where she scored 50 points in a loss as she propelled her team to a 16 point lead with just over a minute left in the first half.

“Her game hasn't really changed much, but she just does it a lot better than from last year to this year and then the year before that,” Clouden said. “She’s just improved her game, she knows who she is, she doesn't try to be who she's not and take threes and stuff like that. She does what she does well, gets rebounds and she scores. She's really good at what she does.”

However, with the game beginning to slip away, it was Clouden’s time to shine as she went on a 5-0 to close the first half to make the game manageable heading into halftime with a pair of buckets off of her own offensive rebound and a Michigan turnover.

“She’s (Clouden) a tremendous player and I think everyone saw that tonight,” Michigan Head Coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Her ability to make shots as well as her ability to draw fouls, that really got us in foul trouble as well because she was coming off of those screens and we kept picking up fouls on that. We tried our best to slow her down but she had a great night.”

Clouden’s ability to draw fouls became a problem in the third quarter for the Wolverines as Hillmon and Michigan’s second-leading scorer Leigha Brown each picked up their fourth foul as the Spartans began to close in.

This really disrupted Hillmon’s ability to crash the glass in this one, as she had to be careful not to pick up a silly foul to see herself on the bench for the rest of the night. That ability of Hillmon’s to grab rebounds is something that Coach Merchant marvels over.

“I told our team, talking about Dennis Rodman one time a reporter asked him why he is such a good offensive rebounder,” Merchant said. “He said because I go after every ball, I'm in elite shape when our game is over, he goes and rides a bike, he gets back on a treadmill, he believes he's going to be in the elite shape that he needs to be in and that allows him to be able to physically fight for every basketball in the shot goes up. I think she (Hillmon) has that mentality and she's embraced putting herself in a position to be successful with her commitment to her body in the weight room under conditioning.”

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The Spartans in addition to getting Hillmon in foul trouble emphasized on preventing those offensive boards that can deflate teams.

“They sent more people to come down and crash when we were shooting so that I wouldn’t get any offensive rebounds,” Hillmon said. “They sent a lot of big bodies and made sure they boxed out and I think just having more numbers in the paint then a lot of other teams where some people, they’ll send in three or four where Michigan State probably had like four or five at any given time.”

Clouden with a chance to steal a win carried her team back within three points with just under eight minutes left to go, but her career-high 34 points just weren’t enough as Hillmon and Brown checked back in and extended the lead back to 10, ending the Spartans’ chances at a comeback.

“Naz is Batman and Leigha Brown is Robin and it's never in question, it's night in and night out,” Merchant said. “Those two are 26 and 22 (points) a night and they’ll get some fill-in kids from there in terms of contributions but those two kids are kind of the Batman and Robin We always have that in Clouden and I feel like Clouden in this year and in years past is proven that she's the Batman, but our Robin is always kind of suspect. It's great when you have depth, but you do need consistency.”

Hillmon’s six points helped close out the Spartans in her five final minutes of play. Hillmon’s ability to create offense on every possession had carried the Wolverines to a 12-1 record on the year and her coach knows she has something special.

“She’s so long, she just has an incredible knack and she just has such great length,” Arico said. “She gets a shot block every now and again but she’s so smart and able to make adjustments. She studies the game so much and really understands how she’s going to be defended by each individual that she has counter moves. If they take this away, she’s able to finish this way. She’s a student of the game, she understands the defense and she has a tremendous length so she’s able to get her shot off, even though she appears to be undersized. She just finishes better than anyone I’ve ever seen.” 

While Clouden may have fallen short this time, if the two teams are to meet again, both Clouden and Hillmon know they will both give each other their best games if they are to match up again at some point this season.

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