Nique Clifford brought the house down.
It was on Jan. 20, Clifford’s first night in the starting lineup, when the sophomore wing provided what arguably was the top individual highlight for Colorado during the 2021-22 season.
The Buffaloes were hosting No. 16 USC when a steal by Jabari Walker led to freshman guard KJ Simpson pushing a fast break the other way. After passing midcourt, Simpson found Clifford running free along the right wing. Clifford soared to the rim to deliver a thunderous slam dunk over Trojans standout Drew Peterson, sending the Events Center into a frenzy.
In the moment, the dunk was more than mere window dressing. Clifford’s slam ignited a 10-0 run, which Clifford also capped with a 3-pointer, giving the Buffs a four-point lead going into the final eight minutes.
The end result, however, essentially summed up the season for Clifford and, collectively, the Buffs. Clifford didn’t score again, and USC dominated down the stretch to hand the Buffs a three-point defeat, one of several results that, had it been reversed, might have altered CU’s NCAA Tournament fate in March.
For Clifford, if that dunk showcased his high-ceiling potential, the move into the starting lineup that began that night signified the start of higher expectations for the 6-foot-6 Colorado Springs native that Clifford carries into the offseason.
“As a team, we’ve got to get better at being more consistent,” Clifford said. “I know we dropped a few games this year we should’ve won that would’ve given us a better chance of making the tournament. I think just being locked in every game, not taking any games for granted, is something we have to have. And then I think for me individually, I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better.”
Beginning with that USC game, Clifford started the final 17 games of the season in the wake of a season-ending foot injury suffered by senior guard Elijah Parquet. Overall, Clifford averaged 6.7 points per game and ranked third on the team with 4.6 rebounds per game, finishing with a .453 field goal percentage and a .400 mark on 3-pointers.
In his 17 games in the starting lineup, Clifford’s numbers stayed in line with his season marks, as he averaged 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds with an identical .453 field goal percentage.
Clifford posted his top three scoring efforts of the season while in the starting lineup, recording a season-high 15 points in a home win against Oregon State on Feb. 5 and tallying 14 points in road wins against Oregon State and Stanford.
That monster dunk against USC aside, too often Clifford deferred too readily on offense. He went scoreless at home against ranked foes from Tennessee and Arizona, and as he goes into the offseason firmly entrenched as the starting two-guard, Clifford is embracing the challenge of consistently taking his game to another level.
“I feel like I was hesitant at times this year,” Clifford said. “I’ve got to step up and become a leader for the team and be an everyday guy. I think it’s just trusting the work I’ve put in and being confident to go out there and do that on the floor. As long as I’m in the gym and staying in the gym this summer, I’ll come back and be a consistent, everyday guy. I should be able to do what I have to do to help us win games.”