Defense, youth, keys strong start for MSU women’s basketball


Credit: Joe Dandron / WDBM

Joe Dandron, Station Manager

EAST LANSING – Nia Clouden and Taryn McCutcheon have never been the tallest  and strongest on the basketball court.

You wouldn’t realize it, as McCutcheon has been one of the consistent stars on the MSU women’s basketball team over four years.

Clouden joined her three years after she arrived, and despite her size, she constantly attacks the rim. The sophomore averages a little under seven free throw attempts a game, and shoots 81% from the line.

“I think this year I’ve improved defensively,” said Clouden.

The duo, who leads a team defense that holds teams to 54 points a game, also has accounted for five steals a game, too.

That combination, when paired with one of the top recruiting classes in the nation and returning players like Tory Ozment and Kayla Belles, has pushed the Spartans to a nice 6-1 start as they head to Florida State to take on the No. 8 Seminoles on Thursday.

The Spartans’ only loss this season came against No. 25 LSU in the Junkanoo Jam tournament in Bimini, Bahamas.

“The key part has been playing as a team and just being focused and listening to what coach says,” said Clouden after practice on Wednesday. “I think I can speak for all of us, we love playing against good competition and getting to travel. Being able to go down to Florida again is pretty fun.”

Last season, which ended in a loss at the hands of NCAA Champion runner-up Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament, was paced by offense. 

One of the best scoring teams in the nation and best in most major assist categories – MSU often relied on its offense to get it done. But this time, it’s about youth and defense.

And this year, as the underclassmen learn their roles alongside returnees Clouden, McCutcheon, Victoria Gaines and Mardrekia Cook – the defense has become the big reason why the Spartans are 6-1 heading into a ranked matchup.

“Offensively, we’re still trying to figure it out,” said head coach Suzy Merchant. “At the same time defensively I think that’s something you can always have. We’ve changed what we’re doing a little bit with being a little more aggressive, full court-wise and pressuring passing lanes, guarding the ball.”

“I was interested to see how we would do against LSU and Kansas State who are obviously BCS power teams, top-25 like teams, and we did really well with it … it’s one thing to do it against a mid-major and feel good about yourself, it’s another thing to do it against somebody that’s really physical, talented and athletic. I think it bothered both teams that we played.”

Defense leads to offense often in basketball and MSU is forcing nearly 23 turnovers a game, while scoring 23 points off of those. 

With McCutcheon, Shay Colley and Clouden filling out the guard rotation, the offense has the ability to get out and run with some of the better teams in the NCAA.

Shay Colley returns from injury

The Spartans were led in scoring last season by Colley with 14.5 points a game, even though she missed a handful of games with a nagging leg injury throughout the year.

Colley has returned from injury and played in MSU’s previous three games, scoring 15 points against KSU in the team’s last game in Bimini. 

“It’s really big (having Colley back),” said Clouden. “She’s been here for a long time, she’s a veteran and she knows how things go … she really calms us down the court.”

“We love having her back,” said Merchant. “But at the same time, I think you just gotta learn about next man up. I mean, we’ve played more without her then we’ve played with her so obviously we just take it day to day.”

“You know, I don’t know if we’ll have her for the next game or not (against FSU).”

The senior guard spent part of the early season with Team Canada playing for the Canadian National Team.

Joe Dandron is a football writer at Impact89FM. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JosephDandronMI.