Thursday night marked two years to the day since Amanda Clifton was thrust into Illinois State’s starting lineup.
She was a sophomore at the time, averaging 11 minutes a game on a team led by star senior guard Kristi Cirone.
Two starters had been suspended prior to a Women’s National Invitation Tournament home game against Louisiana Tech. Suddenly, Clifton was starting alongside Cirone.
“The nerves were going,” she recalled, smiling. “I was a little anxious.”
How did she do?
Clifton had three rebounds, two steals, no points, no assists and one turnover in 18 minutes. Most of all, she survived … as did her team with a 73-59 victory.
Clifton leaned on Cirone back then (who didn’t?), looking to her for leadership, guidance, toughness.
Thursday night, a banner honoring Cirone’s career hung from the Redbird Arena rafters. And down on Doug Collins Court, Clifton was the steady hand that steered ISU toward a 79-66 WNIT third-round victory over Duquesne.
She had eight assists and only one turnover. Her night also included five steals, four rebounds and two blocked shots. This wasn’t a wide-eyed sophomore gingerly testing postseason waters. It was a confident veteran leading in every conceivable way.
ISU had four players score in double figures while advancing to the WNIT Elite Eight for the third straight year. Clifton had at least one assist to each.
“It’s natural now,” she said. “Just going through it and learning from everybody has helped me. Like Kristi … learning from her and seeing how she handled herself.
“I kind of have to be that example — and the other seniors as well — for the rest of the team to stay calm, collected and just play the game.”
Clifton played the heck out of it Thursday, even while making just one of five shots. Frankly, it’s difficult to remember which one went in.
She’s not about that anymore, despite scoring the second-most points (1,123) in Rock Island Alleman High School history. Clifton is the unselfish, gritty floor general every team needs to make a deep postseason run.
Told she scored only two points, she shot back.
The smile grew wider.
Nothing else matters to ISU’s No. 14, who has started 72 straight games since that stressful first start.
“If I don’t score a point, I’m fine with it as long as we win the game,” Clifton said.
A lot of players say that. Hear it enough, and you can tell which ones mean it.
Clifton means every word.
“She is a great leader,” said Redbird senior Hannah Spanich, who scored 14 points. “She commands the floor. She really brings the energy that we need to keep us together, keep us going.”
Clifton’s only blemish Thursday was a second-half turnover when she was called for double dribble. She spiked the ball on the floor and turned disgustedly to go play defense.
“I beat myself up over turnovers,” she said.
The best point guards do. They value possessions over all else. Stephanie Glance has watched Clifton do it throughout her first year as ISU coach, calling the 5-foot-8 Clifton “a big spark.”
“She sort of makes us run,” Glance said. “She sets the tempo, she sets the tone.”
Thursday, she set the Redbirds in motion toward their eighth WNIT win in the past three years at Redbird Arena. The reward is another home game at 1 p.m. Sunday against Arkansas.
No. 14 will lead the way.
It’s natural now.
Randy Kindred is at email@example.com. The Kindred Blog: www.pantagraph.com/blogs