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Analysis: No. 16 Michigan State hands No. 15 Notre Dame second straight home loss

The Spartans never trailed Thursday night as they beat the Fighting Irish, 72-69, for the first time in 15 years. Nia Clouden’s 28 points got them most of the way there, but here’s how else Michigan State got the job done.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Central Michigan v Michigan State
Nia Clouden scored a career-high 28 points against Notre Dame on Thursday.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thursday’s game between the No. 15 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the No. 16 Michigan State Spartans was, as advertised, a close clash between two teams in the middle of the AP Top 25. It was also a quick rematch from the Spartans’ final game of the 2018-19 season, where the Fighting Irish defeated them without a second thought in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

But as we all know, Notre Dame looks a lot different this season. Five brand-new starters later, the Irish have now lost consecutive home games for the first time since 2008. They fell to Tennessee on Nov. 11, then to the Spartans on Thursday night 72-69.

It’s not like Michigan State had all the advantages, though. The team was without its sole preseason All-Big Ten pick Shay Colley, who’s currently representing Canada at Olympic qualifiers. And the game was in South Bend, Indiana, where the Fighting Irish had won 109 of their last 112 games heading into this season.

Still, the Spartans prevailed. Here’s why:

Nia Clouden is a force to be reckoned with

Sure, making the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and grabbing All-Big Ten Honorable Mention recognition last season was impressive. Clouden started all 33 games for the Spartans and averaged 12 points per game, good for third on the team.

But this season, Clouden is on a tear already. Last night, she met her career-high of three made 3-pointers just two and a half minutes into the game. Less than a minute later, she had four 3-pointers, and all 12 of Michigan State’s points. She finished with just those four makes from beyond the arc, but along with ten more points inside the arc and 6-of-6 shooting from the free throw line, Clouden led the Spartans with a career-high 28 points.

Along with a 23-point outing in the season opener and seven points (in 13 minutes) in her second game of the season, Clouden is now averaging 19.3 points per game. She’s also a key defensive presence, averaging just over three steals per game — an aspect of Michigan State’s game that it has stressed this season. Last night, the Spartans outscored the Irish 29-18 on points off turnovers.

How easy will it be for teams to limit Notre Dame from three?

Thursday night, Notre Dame didn’t sink a 3-pointer until the beginning of the fourth quarter, and had made just three attempts before then. This isn’t exactly new for the Irish, who averaged about 4-of-12 from three per game last season and ranked in the bottom half of the ACC in made 3-pointers.

That said, it’s also an easily exploitable weakness for teams with solid three-point defense, like Michigan State. Notre Dame has some perfectly good 3-point shooters (see below), but they were completely shut down outside the arc for last night’s first three quarters.

Can Michigan State control its fouling?

Now, Notre Dame is middling outside the arc, but it does get to the line about twice as often as its opponents. This ended up working out well with Michigan State’s early average of just under 24 personal fouls per game. Last night, it committed 27 and gave Notre Dame 31 tries from the charity stripe.

However, the Irish only converted 18 of those, or else the final score might have swung in their favor. (The Spartans, for what it’s worth, had their best free-throw shooting outing of the season, going 14-for-16.) It’s lucky, in a way, that Michigan State didn’t suffer more for its fouling — playing a team that relies as heavily on its starters as Notre Dame means there isn’t much room to foul a substitute who’s a “bad” free throw shooter, on purpose or not.

But when it comes to Big Ten play, many excellent free-throw shooting teams are lined up to take advantage of opportunities from the line. In a season where Michigan State could win the Big Ten — especially considering frontrunner Maryland’s recent vulnerability — it’ll have to strike a balance between its already-stellar defense and its tendency to commit unnecessary fouls.

Despite the loss, an encouraging early outing for Notre Dame

Coming back from losing all five starters — especially when they accounted for 98 percent of their scoring last season — is a Herculean task. But that the Irish not only find themselves still ranked, but also hanging with other ranked teams, is a testament to both the team’s winning culture and the talent that head coach Muffet McGraw can still attract to the program.

Even though it took Notre Dame some time to get going from three, it’s clear that freshman Sam Brunelle is going to be a dominating presence from beyond the arc. The 2019 Powerade JAM Fest 3-point champion accounted for two of the Irish’s three made 3-pointers and six of the team’s eight total attempts.

Sophomore Danielle Cosgrove, meanwhile, scored all 12 of the Irish’s bench points (including the third made 3-pointer), a career-high. For a team that’s not known for its depth, having that kind of spark off the bench will be invaluable moving forward.

This is Sparta!

From start to finish, Michigan State showed off its ability to hold strong in tight games. And although it was outscored 25-19 in the fourth quarter, it always had an answer from the floor — and from the line, as it converted eight of its 10 free throw attempts in the quarter.

Taryn McCutcheon, who had 12 points for Michigan State, went 3-of-4 from the line in the fourth quarter. Her last two makes got the game to its final score and put the game out of reach for Notre Dame.

Entering last night’s game, the Spartans had won 195 of their last 207 games that they led with five minutes to go. Considering they never trailed in this one, continuing that trend was a natural way to close out a big road win.

Up next

Michigan State heads home to host Oakland on Tuesday, Nov. 19 (7 p.m. ET, BTN+).

Notre Dame hosts Toledo on Wednesday, Nov. 20 (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network Extra).