Alyza Winston rose for a shot with a chance to go to overtime and the opportunity to be a part of NCAA Tournament glory. The shot banged off the rim.
As the team walked to the locker room, the regret set in for Winston and the squad on what could have been.
"Alyza hasn't left her chair," Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant said. "I mean she feels like she lost the entire game. She feels like it's all her fault. She didn't play well, she had a couple of layups that she missed, she's going through that and that's OK right now. You go through some of that as a player.”
The veteran Nia Clouden walked over to her young teammate.
She had been there before as one of just a handful of Spartans who had played in the NCAA Tournament. Clouden understood what Winston was feeling as they came up short and gave her the LeBron James to Kyrie Irving like nod as they wrapped up the game.
“We’ll be back.”
“I just told her it was a good shot,” Clouden said. “We'll take that shot any day. She was wide open. I had few people on me. I wasn't going to force it up when she was wide open, but I feel like Alyza played a really good game. She's only a sophomore, and this is her first tournament, so I feel like she'll definitely learn from this. She made some mistakes, but those are easy to fix.”
The Spartans ultimately fell short against Iowa State despite an all-around team performance by a team that will return a majority of its production from this season. Now with a taste of defeat, this Spartan team has everything to work for in this upcoming season.
“There's only one way when those moments happen again, for you to elevate your game is to be someone that works,” Merchant said. “If you have high expectations in life, or on a basketball court and your work ethic is down here. So, if you have a 10 expectation and you have a six work ethic, in the middle is always going to be frustration, anger, disappointment. If your expectation is a 10, then your work ethic needs to be a 10 so that those moments meet or exceed that.”
The Spartans will have a pretty good head start on that.
The Spartans will miss their seniors who gave everything they had in Mardrekia Cook, Laurel Jacqmain and Claire Hendrickson, but the Spartans will return everyone else along with an extremely talented and hardworking backcourt in Winston and Clouden that will likely be on some preseason watch lists and All-Big Ten teams to start the year.
“I think we can be a really good duo along with the rest of our teammates,” Clouden said. “We play pretty different, but kind of the same at the same time. We can both drive. She's a better shooter. We can both shoot a bit, but also with Janai (Crooms) and the three guards we have, I feel like we all have a really good group of guards, and we play really cohesively together but as we all elevate our games I think it'll only go up from here.”
It all begins with Clouden who plans on returning for her senior season after being First Team All-Big Ten along with leading her team in scoring. That type of player returning is rare and makes Merchant excited for what’s to come.
“If Nia didn't go, we didn't go,” Merchant said. “Now to see her this year and how much more confidence, and we have a really good group of kids around her too, I think we'll just continue to get better. I think that she does a good job affecting the game, not just her scoring but she's really good at giving it up and reading defenses and secondary defenses and has really matured in that regard. I'm excited, I mean she's a heck of a player, and I’m looking forward to next year already.”
Despite all the personal accolades, when asked about what her plans were for the offseason, Clouden was focused on her team as a whole.
“Going into next season, I feel like we all have pretty high expectations for our team as a whole,” Clouden said. “We're going to try and work to have a better record in the Big Ten, to be able to get a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament and then personally I just want to work on basically every aspect of my game, but especially outside shooting and defense specifically.”
Winston is by far one of the most talented players on the team but had a hard time finding the consistency in her sophomore year. She would often disappear in moments and explode in others.
As the season came to a close though, Winston seemed to find her groove and that came as the time she spent on the court grew.
"I think she has to work on being consistent on finishing, but, for the most part, I think she's done a good job being aggressive on three levels of scoring,” Merchant said. “She's done a good job as the season has gone on too when she drives to find people. I think that's the next phase, reading secondary defenses sometimes and not predetermining. Sometimes, she's a predetermined kid: ‘I'm going to come off the screen, and I'm going to do this.’ I think she's doing a really good job of recognizing the secondary actions that can happen off of those things.”
While the taste of defeat hurts now, the Spartan backcourt of Winston and Clouden gained valuable tools, vengeance and experience as they already are looking to next season and what they need to do to grow.
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"I feel like this is a great learning experience,” Clouden said. “Especially in a close game like this where we got to play Iowa State. We only lost by four, and we could have won the game. So, we made some mistakes. I feel like this is a great learning opportunity for them. Hopefully when we come back next year, we can grow from our performance today.”
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