Only a freshman point guard, Nia Clouden has already enjoyed thrilling moments for the Michigan State women’s basketball team. She scored a career-high 27 points in an 84-70 victory at then-No. 16 Iowa on Dec. 30 and added a career-best 11 assists in a 91-66 thrashing of Virginia on Nov. 28 and a 77-60 rout of Illinois on Thursday.
But in one of her more well-rounded performances of the season, the 18-year-old Owings Mills resident compiled 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a 77-60 upset of then-No. 9 Maryland on Jan. 17. But she dismissed the notion that the effort was payback for a lack of serious recruiting from her home state’s flagship program.
“I was definitely up for the game,” she said Wednesday. “It was a big game for me because a lot of people back home wanted to see me play against Maryland considering they didn’t offer me, but I never looked at it as a revenge kind of thing. I just looked at it as another opportunity to play against a good team and get a win.”
Clouden has wasted little time carving out a role for the No. 22 Spartans (15-5, 5-4 Big Ten), who host Penn State on Thursday. The 5-foot-8 St. Frances graduate has started every game, ranks second on the team in minutes per game (29.4), total assists (88) and total steals (26), and is third in points per game (11.1).
Clouden was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Dec. 31, and Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said Clouden has already exceeded her expectations.
“The poise and presence she plays with is incredible,” Merchant said. “She’s a triple threat kid, but clearly playing downhill and off of ball screens are things she really excels at, and those have been things that our program really needed here. So it’s been nice to have her do that and set people up.”
Clouden’s skills are well known in Baltimore, where they proved instrumental in the Panthers’ run to back-to-back Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference titles and the Bishop Walsh Girls Invitational Tournament championship in her senior year. She was a two-time All-Metro selection by The Baltimore Sun and the Gatorade Maryland Player of the Year.
Still, Clouden acknowledged that she had to adjust to playing at the Division I level.
“I’d say it was hard just getting used to the pace of collegiate basketball,” she said. “But I definitely think it would have been way harder if I had gone to a different [high] school because St. Frances did a good job of preparing me for the next level.”
Merchant said any concerns she might have had about Clouden’s readiness were erased during a scrimmage against reigning national champion Notre Dame.
“Our first scrimmage was against Breanna Turner, who is a 6-3 first-round [WNBA] draft pick probably on a national championship Notre Dame team, and she was taking it to that kid and going right at her and finishing and getting and-ones,” Merchant said. “I thought she was going to be effective, and I thought we needed her, and I loved her skillset. But in that Oct. 26 scrimmage against Notre Dame, I was like, ‘OK, this kid is definitely better than I thought.’ ”
For all of her strides, Clouden can be a tough critic of herself. The one category that irritates her the most is turnovers, of which she has committed 40 thus far, which is the second-highest total on the team. A four-turnover, six-point outing in a 65-55 loss at Ohio State on Jan. 14 continues to linger.
“It bothered me a lot, especially when we went back and watched it on film and I saw what I could have done better and things like that,” she said. “The turnovers are the mistakes that I hate to do the most.”
But Merchant argued that Clouden “plays one of the toughest positions to play in any college sport.”
“She has to direct the team, run the team, boss people around who are three or four years older and have been here and know the program,” Merchant said. “But she just has a real calm demeanor about her. She’s a very quiet person. So I would say that the next level for her is to become a little more vocal on the court. I think her poise is calming, but now the next level for her is going to be able to put the ball behind her back and really vocally lead the team, and that’s going to come.”
Clouden said she is especially grateful for counsel she has received from senior center Jenna Allen and junior guard Taryn McCutcheon, who has shifted to shooting guard to make room for Clouden in the starting lineup. McCutcheon has openly embraced the position switch and has been willing to share her thoughts on playing point guard, according to Clouden.
“It’s encouraging because I know that she’s done it before, and I really respect what she has to say considering she’s been where I’m at right now,” she said.
McCutcheon said she has not noticed any struggles on Clouden’s part.
“We trust her fully,” she said. “She earned it. She’s been playing really confident, and the way that she’s made her impact on the team, we have no choice but to respect her, and we all do. I know that I love playing with her and I love being on the court with her, and I know I can speak for the rest of the team as well. We trust her as a point guard, we trust her as a teammate, and we’re just really happy to be playing with her.”
Clouden’s adjustment to the Spartans appears to be working in the classroom, too. Merchant pointed out that the first-year player earned a 3.8 GPA last semester, the highest mark on the team.
Clouden has also seized control of her nutrition. She said she has cut out fried foods like fries and chicken and dairy products such as milk and cheese from her diet.
“I think I’ve toned up a little bit, and I feel faster, and I feel like I have more legs under me,” she said although she acknowledged that she still enjoys the occasional cookies and cream ice cream. “My conditioning is better, too. And I’ve noticed that I’ve lost five pounds since I got to school.”
Clouden said her top priorities for the remainder of the season are refining her individual defense and improving on her 35.5 percent shooting rate from 3-point range. Those areas have tempered her personal vision of her success.
“I had a good career in high school and was able to win major awards, and I’ve been playing well here, but I can be better,” she said. “I’m just going to keep working and not let it get to my head and not get complacent.”