For much of Thursday’s contest in East Lansing, Michigan, it looked like Nia Clouden was playing against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. One player going against five usually isn’t a recipe for a win, but in Michigan State’s case, it was.
Behind a game-high 32 points from Clouden—a 5-foot-8 guard from Owings Mills, Maryland, who scored 50 points in a double-overtime loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 20—the Spartans defended their home court with a 72-69 win, which ends Nebraska’s 12-game unbeaten streak to start the season.
Trailing by three with 7 seconds left in the game, Nebraska guard Jaz Shelley missed two long 3-point attempts in the game’s final moments. Shelley, the Huskers’ leading scorer coming in at 14.3 points per game, finished with eight points, nine rebounds and five assists. She went 3-of-16 from the field and 2-of-12 from behind the arc.
Shelley wasn’t the only Husker who had an off night shooting the ball—the whole team did. Nebraska, which was without backup guard Ruby Porter, who didn’t make the trip, was ice cold as it shot 33% (24-of-73) from the field and 21% (7-of-33) from 3. The Huskers struggled to sink makeable shots near the rim and were just 13-of-27 on layups while the Spartans were 11-of-15.
“We’ve had a lot of success early this season by getting paint touches and points in the paint, really feeding it in the post,” Nebraska head coach Amy Williams said after the game on the Husker Sports Network. “I thought we were faced up against some bigger bodies for the first time and we didn’t finish very well. Then, all the sudden, we stopped going in the paint. That’s something that we really need to make an emphasis on, to continue to feed to the paint and not settle for 33 3s when you’re shooting 21 percent from behind the arc.”
Michigan State was without five players for the game, including starting point guard Alyze Winston, who entered the transfer portal in early December after starting 10 games. The Spartans didn’t shoot much better than the Huskers as they were at 41% (24-of-58), but the difference came at the free-throw line. Powered by Clouden, who excelled at drawing contact and went 15-of-17 at the line, the Spartans were a combined 22-of-27 at the charity stripe while the Huskers were 14-of-15. Nebraska was called for 20 fouls to Michigan State’s 11.
“It’s a tough loss. I think that sometimes when you have situations like that where you have a whole game plan built with one lineup, one matchup in mind, and now all the sudden right before tipoff, you’re adjusting,” Williams said. “I think it definitely played to their (Spartans) advantage having the ball in Clouden’s hands. She played great and got to the free-throw line 17 times with the ball in her hands at the point position. So there were some things that played to their benefit with that, and it’s disappointing. You definitely want to be able to walk out with a win.”
Another area where the Spartans had control was the rebounding. Michigan State outrebounded Nebraska 45-38 and grabbed 11 more defensive boards.
“I thought our kids fought, but we really did not shoot the ball well and we talked before the ball game about, if you want to win on the road in the Big Ten Conference, you better rebound. We got outrebounded by seven. That’s something that you can’t do,” Williams said.
Nebraska trailed 37-26 at the half and saw its deficit balloon to 13 points at one point in the third quarter, but Sam Haiby kept her team in the game. The Moorhead, Minnesota, native scored 19 points—15 of which came in the second half—with seven rebounds, five assists and played a key role in the Huskers cutting down their deficit.
“I thought she single-handedly kept us in the ball game there for a stretch,” Williams said of Haiby.
Nebraska cut the Spartans’ lead to 39-35 with 6 minutes left in the third thanks to an old-fashioned 3-point play from Haiby and a mid-range jumper from Bella Cravens, who had six points, two rebounds and two assists in the loss. After a Michigan State answer, a corner 3 from Shelley put the Huskers within three, 51-48, but the momentum was stopped once again and Nebraska trailed 55-48 to start the fourth.
Strong play from Annika Stewart helped the Huskers get close again in the fourth. The 6-3 forward went on a personal 5-0 run to put Nebraska’s deficit at 55-53 with 9 minutes left. Then Haiby went on her own 4-0 run while going right at Clouden, who had four fouls for much of the second half but never fouled out. Those physical Haiby buckets cut the Spartans’ lead to 62-60 with 6:21 left.
With Michigan State nursing a 66-64 lead with under two minutes remaining, Clouden scored five of the Spartans’ final six points and helped give her team the three-point edge that the Huskers couldn’t beat as the clock ticked down.
Next up for Nebraska is a home game against a top-10 opponent, Michigan (11-1), on Tuesday at 8 p.m. The Wolverines were ranked No. 9 in the latest AP poll.