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St. Frances point guard Nia Clouden leads with big game, quiet confidence

St. Frances' Nia Clouden (24) shoots as the top-ranked Panthers battle defending Class 3A champion Frederick in the Power Move Winter Showcase, at Oakland Mills High School in December 2017.
St. Frances' Nia Clouden (24) shoots as the top-ranked Panthers battle defending Class 3A champion Frederick in the Power Move Winter Showcase, at Oakland Mills High School in December 2017. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

When Nia Clouden’s father set up a driveway basketball hoop at their Owings Mills home eight years ago, the future St. Frances point guard didn’t realize how much attention it would draw.

“I was the only one around who had one and the first day I went outside, all these boys came over. There were like 15 of them and we didn’t go inside until it was too dark,” she said.

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Ten-year-old Clouden didn’t mind that there were no girls in her new basketball circle. Even at that age, she knew the boys would help her improve her game.

Western's All-Metro forward-guard Jasmen Walton learned basketball from her father and has remained connected to him through the sport since he was killed when she was 10 years old.

“They were good and they were better than me at the time,” she said. “I got to watch them play and I thought it was fun playing against them and seeing who would win. They would always pick me first and I learned a lot.”

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Soon after, Clouden joined the Maryland Lady Tigers Amateur Athletic Union team, and she was on her way to becoming one of the top high school girls basketball players in Maryland and earning a scholarship to play at Michigan State.

For the past two years she’s been an All-Metro first-team selection and last season, she was the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year after helping the Panthers reach the semifinals of the DICK’s Sporting Goods High School National Tournament to finish 30-1 with the No. 17 ranking in USA Today’s Super 25.

At every step, she’s been determined to get better. Her coachability and work ethic stand out to St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton and to her AAU coach, Walter Roman.

“Whatever you asked her to do, she did it. I don’t ever remember her complaining,” Roman said. “She was 100 percent one of the most coachable kids. She would try things in the game from a really young age and you would think to yourself, ‘Wow.’ She tried a reverse layup in the fourth grade. It didn’t go in, but you saw where she was going. She knew when to do what. She always wanted to get better. I’ve never heard her say, ‘I’m the best one here.’ ”

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The 5-foot-8 senior is a natural point guard and dishes out three assists per game this season, but she can put the ball in the hoop, too. She averages 12.8 points and needs just 25 to reach 1,500 for her career as the No. 1 and two-time defending champion Panthers (20-4) prepare to meet No. 2 McDonogh for the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship Sunday at 6 p.m. at Stevenson.

“She can do everything,” McDonogh coach Brad Rees said. “She’s a great shooter, she’s a great penetrator and she’s a great distributor of the ball, so offensively, she’s very hard to defend. I’ve always been impressed with her unselfishness and general team play, but then when it counts, she really steps up her game.”

The Eagles have been on the receiving end of Clouden’s late-game heroics more than once. In the first meeting this season, the Panthers led by one after three quarters, but she made a slick move to the hoop, hit a 15-footer and a 3-pointer and had an assist to help run the lead to seven late in the fourth quarter as St. Frances pulled away for a 68-54 win.

Her sophomore year in a regular-season game against McDonogh, she scored 11 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter picking up the slack after All-Metro forward Mia Davis fouled out. The Panthers won, 64-59.

Clouden has been one of the main reasons the Panthers have not lost a conference game during the past three years. Their only loss to a local team during that stretch was to McDonogh at the Bishop Walsh Girls Basketball Invitational Tournament two years ago, but they rebounded to beat the Eagles for the Bishop Walsh championship last year. Three of this season’s losses have been to teams ranked above them in MaxPreps Xcellent 25, where the Panthers come in at No. 19.

Clouden said her role hasn’t changed this season, though she’s had to take on more responsibility as a leader.

“I think that is the final dimension for her, because she has all of the physical skills,” Shelton said. “The point guard position is more mental than physical, so she’s learned how to do a lot of things like reading defenses, paying attention to mismatches, getting the ball to our best players at critical times and demonstrating more leadership especially in close games. Part of what we’re coaching this year is for her, when she transitions to Michigan State that she’s very comfortable in her own basketball skin just leading a team and playing and performing well in those pressure situations when she has the ball in her hands.”

She never showed that better than last year against National Christian Academy, when she hit the game-winning jump shot in overtime off a broken play. That sealed the first undefeated regular season in St. Frances girls basketball history.

Although Clouden celebrated that basket, her expression rarely gives away what she’s thinking on the court. Her calm, poised demeanor and quiet confidence often help the Panthers sustain an opposing team’s run and regain the momentum.

Angel Reese scored 24 points as No. 1 St. Frances won a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown against IAAM A Conference rival McDonogh, 68-54.

“She’s a great teammate,” Panthers All-Metro forward Angel Reese said. “When we’re not having our best game, she helps us stay together. She’s always helped me. Even last year when I was a freshman, she gave me the ball even though I was nervous. If I would miss a couple layups, she would still give me the ball and that made me better.”

As her high school career comes to a close, Clouden said she is ready for college basketball.

Through an exhaustive recruiting process that began with 30 schools, she and her parents created graphs and charts and studied many aspects of those programs, including the number of point guards usually kept on the roster, how many veteran point guards they would have for the next few years, the diversity of the team, school and local area, and transfer rates. The only con on her list for Michigan State was cold weather. One pro, although it wasn’t a big part of the conversation, is the family she has in the Lansing area, including several cousins also attending Michigan State.

Clouden said she should have a chance to play soon, but she likes having a veteran point guard to learn from. Her parents are happy she’s headed to a Big Ten school, so she’ll have games close to home. The Spartans are also frequently ranked in the Top 25, although injuries have contributed to a 15-12 record this season.

“I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s a new opportunity, a fresh start,” said Clouden, who has a 3.5 GPA and wants to become a dentist. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be easy because it’s another level, but I think I’ll be able to transition fine.”

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