Evanston, Ill. — The most notable moments in Alex Gauna’s Michigan State career haven’t always been positive.
In fact, when coach Tom Izzo talks about the junior forward, it’s normally about the things Gauna needs to improve on — namely, defense and rebounding — in order to be a regular on the rotation.
However, Wednesday’s 54-40 victory over Northwestern might have been the night Gauna showed he belongs in the lineup. With Adreian Payne sidelined and Matt Costello struggling to get his conditioning back, Gauna scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds.
More importantly, he played solid defense in 20 minutes.
“He did play with some energy tonight,” Izzo said. “He knows what he’s doing and understands the game really well. Maybe this is a big step for Alex.”
Gauna has always shown some offensive skill, but issues with defense and the inability to stay out of foul trouble have hurt him this season. He has played in all but one game, but only six times before Wednesday did he play more than 10 minutes.
It caused him to second-guess himself at times, which made his performance against Northwestern even more impressive.
“You lose confidence in yourself,” he said. “You get two fouls and sit on the bench the rest of the half, that is very difficult. You go back in the second half and try to get in a groove and that’s difficult. Today I just tried to play good defense and help my team. If the shot was there I tried to make them.
“This gives me confidence and hopefully gives coach confidence that he can keep me in there longer.”
Izzo said Payne will have more X-rays on his right foot on Friday but reiterated he wouldn’t play the senior until he was ready, making him questionable for Saturday’s game at Illinois.
“It’s coming down to when he can walk pain-free and knowing it’s getting better,” Izzo said. “It’s frustrating for him, although I admit he had better suggestions on the bench than he ever had in a game. I appreciate him as an assistant.”
… The victory moved Izzo into a fourth-place tie in all-time Big Ten victories at 214 with former Illinois coach Lou Henson. Izzo can surpass Henson at Illinois on Saturday.
… Michigan State is 8-0 away from home this season, including 4-0 on an opponent’s home court. It marks the first time in school history it has won its first eight games away from East Lansing.