Injuries behind him, Kyle Ahrens takes off for Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Louisville, Ky. — There was a moment Tuesday night when Kyle Ahrens felt like everything was back in place.

The Michigan State junior soared through the air and sent in a two-handed dunk late in the first half of the Spartans’ matchup with Louisville. It was part of six straight points that kept the Spartans in the game just as Louisville was threatening to run away.

Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens (0) scored a career-high 15 in Tuesday's loss to Louisville.

Ahrens sprinted back down the court, and a brief second later, he flexed his fist, giving himself a figurative pat on the back.

He was back.

In that moment, Ahrens was in his element, playing basketball. He was playing it well and he was playing it a lot, to the tune of 40 minutes and 53 seconds. It was the most of any Michigan State player during the overtime loss to the Cardinals and, by far, the most Ahrens has played in his career.

“Kyle Ahrens played his tail off,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He played more minutes than he's ever played in his life. He played hard.”

Just having that opportunity is the real story for Ahrens. His high school career was interrupted by a leg injury that all but wiped out his junior season at Versailles (Ohio) High, though he returned to average 30 points and 8.3 rebounds as a senior. And just when he was set to take on a larger role heading into last season, Ahrens broke his foot.

Instead of being a key part of a Big Ten championship team, Ahrens sat and waited.

His fourth season — again as a junior after taking a redshirt in 2017-18 — began solidly enough. Ahrens was playing about 15 minutes a game and making his mark.

But after Matt McQuaid was forced to stay home because of a deep thigh bruise, Ahrens was suddenly thrust into a bigger role he remembered from his prep days.

Well, even back then Ahrens didn’t play like he did on Tuesday.

“I was talking to my dad,” Ahrens said, “and I don’t know if I even did that in high school.”

It didn’t take Ahrens long to get back in the flow. His first-half dunk followed an earlier 3-pointer, and when Michigan State was putting together its second-half comeback, Ahrens was right in the middle of it. An early 3-pointer in the second half pulled the Spartans to within three and a few minutes later he had another two-handed dunk on a backdoor dish from Cassius Winston.

Another triple pulled Michigan State back to within three with 6:35 to play and Ahrens added one more basket in overtime.

Ahrens finished with 15 points — a career high — and grabbed three rebounds, had a steal and blocked a shot. After the game, he had ice bags on his ankles and lamented a game that got away.

Yup, Ahrens was back.

“It’s just a blessing to be out there healthy,” Ahrens said. “You know, you take a lot of things for granted in life and it made me emotional a little. I just wanted to give it my all and do whatever I could to get a win. But we’ve just got to learn from it and get back tomorrow.”

No. 9 Michigan State (5-2) heads to Rutgers on Friday to open Big Ten play and there’s a decent chance Ahrens will be counted on significantly again. With McQuaid’s status uncertain as he tries to get back from the leg injury, it will continue to be Ahrens who steps in for him.

He showed against Louisville that, even when McQuaid is healthy, more minutes are likely.

“Kyle did a great job,” junior Joshua Langford said. “For him to step up in Quaido’s spot, he did a great job and I’m proud of Kyle. You’re happy for guy like Kyle because he’s had lot of injuries in his career and now he’s really helping. Everyone will be able to see the kind of player he is and I definitely think he’ll have a great season.”

The first big step toward that type of season came Tuesday. From the athletic moves near the basket, to hitting big 3-pointers to hitting the glass and being able to play multiple positions, Ahrens brings plenty of value.

It’s something the Spartans will be happy to have moving forward, and a role Ahrens is all too happy to play.

“It felt really good to be back,” he said.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau