In March, it is star guards that take the spotlight. Whether it is “Cardiac Kemba" Walker at Connecticut or Davidson’s Stephen Curry, guard play has always been the storyline during college basketball’s postseason.
“She’s done it all year,” Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant said. “She had a couple of games where things didn’t bounce her way, but I thought yesterday she was really solid and then today they just didn’t really have an answer for her.”
After a tough first half that saw No. 9 Indiana take an eight-point lead into the half on behalf of their gritty defense that forced 12 turnovers, Clouden seized her moment, scoring 27 second-half points to lead her team to victory.
“It was awesome,” Michigan State guard Alyza Winston said. “Ultimately, she was the reason we got back into it, ... so that was really big for us. It was great to see her get back on track. We all knew she had it in her. She just had to do it.”
Coming into the second half, there was a clear energy shift from Clouden and her squad as she scored 15 third-quarter points. Rather than the mentality of being the next star in March, Clouden was there to assist her team in the way they needed it most.
“My mentality was to just help my team,” Clouden said. “My team looks for me to score and make plays, so that’s what I came out trying to do and ultimately get the win and help our team win. Just fired up to win and not ready to quit and end our season already.”
To finish the regular season, Clouden failed to score double-digit points in their three final games, forcing herself to look in the mirror as she looked to return back to her First Team All-Big Ten form that the Spartans had all season long.
“It was really hard,” she said. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong, what am I doing wrong?’ Ultimately I was just overthinking everything. Just being able to calm down and letting things come to me and not trying to force things on my own and just playing in the flow of the game is really what helped me out.”
When her team needed it most though, Clouden rose to the occasion, and it was like a weight off of her shoulders.
“It felt great, especially with those three games where I played absolutely terrible to end the regular season,” she said. “It just makes me think tough times don’t last, and I can get through whatever it is with basketball. Just keeping my head and keep pushing through and my teammates always got me. They're a big reason I’m able to push through things.”
For Merchant, she knew it was only a matter of time before her star came back. In that second half, Merchant raved about her feel of the game and the way she was able to take over even from a fundamental standpoint.
“I thought she was staying aggressive, and in the past times when things aren’t going Nia’s way, she tries to help the team when we need her to score,” Merchant said. “Sometimes she might take a shot that is ill-advised, which is OK, but I thought she did a good job recognizing how the ball screen was being played and making decisions out of that, whether it was going all the way to the basket, hitting a roller, hitting a skip-out, attacking the outside of the big that was hedging her a little bit.”
“I’m just really proud of her ability to hit free throws down the stretch and kind of carry us," Merchant said. "She just did a great job all around.”
Michigan State is now heading to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tourney for the first time since 2017. With their bags packed and the hotel booked, the Spartans are here for a long time and not just a good time. Michigan State will play in the semifinals against Iowa after the 2 p.m. semifinal game with a chance to play in their first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 2016.
“Since we’re already here, we’re already in the hotel and have our bags packed to stay for a while, we might as well keep trying to win,” Clouden said. “We’ll go out tomorrow and try and win that and see what happens from there.”
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