Kyle Ahrens comes up clutch in MSU's win over Florida
Gainesville, Fla. — When things started getting tight in the final minutes on Saturday, Michigan State was looking for someone to step up and take the game over.
On the road for another tough nonconference game against Florida, the usual suspects weren’t exactly playing well. Cassius Winston looked worn out most of the game and Nick Ward wasn’t playing well in the defensive end. Joshua Langford did his part, hitting two big jumpers in the final six minutes to help the Spartans maintain a slim lead.
But with Michigan State leading by three, the crowd at the O’Connell Center on its feet after a 3-pointer from Gators guard KeVaughan Allen and the clock near three minutes to play, it was junior Kyle Ahrens who rose to the occasion.
Starting his fourth straight game in place of the injured Matt McQuaid, Ahrens hit a 3 from the corner and scored on a drive and reverse layup seconds later to give the Spartans a 61-55 lead with 2:26 to play.
It was his last bucket, however, that was the difference in No. 10 Michigan State’s 63-59 victory. With the shot clock winding down and the Spartans up two, Winston tried to feed Xavier Tillman with a pass in the post. It was knocked away and the loose ball came to Ahrens, who grabbed it, drove to the hoop and dunked just before the shot clock expired, giving MSU a four-point lead with 9.4 seconds on the clock.
“I knew the shot clock was running but I just went … I don’t know,” Ahrens said, trying to recount the final seconds. “Watching the replay I was kinda leery if I got it off in time or not, but it was off in time.”
And Michigan State had a win, thanks to a player who has had to battle his share of adversity to reach this point. It began with a broken leg in high school that slowed his development at MSU and continued when a foot injury kept him out all of last season.
But finally healthy, Ahrens is proving why he can be so valuable.
“Kyle scored seven points in a row at the end, including that big dunk and two of them right at the buzzer,” coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s waited a long time to have a day like this. I take my hat off to him.
“Those were some big baskets and the three was big, the drive and dunk and the drive and reverse layup. He’s very athletic, as we all know, and I thought he took over, and Josh right before that took over a bit. Usually it’s the time Cash does but thank God those two guys really did rise up.”
Now a regular part of the rotation, Ahrens doesn’t spend as much time thinking about how long it took to get here. Instead, he’s focused on what’s next.
“It was a long journey but you just trust the process,” Ahrens said. “It’s my fourth year here and I went through a lot of injuries through high school and there was a lot of doubting. But there’s still a lot to do with this season. It was a great team win.”
One that was possible because of Ahrens, who played 41 minutes and scored 15 in a loss to Louisville before scoring seven and grabbing five rebounds in 20 minutes on Saturday.
How much the playing time continues as McQuaid returned to the lineup remains to be seen, but there was no doubting among the Spartans who the hero was on Saturday.
“When he dunked it I felt like I dunked it,” Langford said. “I was walking around the court looking at the crowd like I did it. It’s exciting to see a guy like Kyle, so passionate about what he does. He gives 110 percent in everything he does and comes to practice every day and gives it his all. To see something like that happen for Kyle is very big.”
After missing the last four games because of a deep thigh bruise, McQuaid was back in action on Saturday, playing 18 minutes and scoring three points.
“I felt good,” McQuaid said. “I had two pretty good falls on it. Overall, I felt good. I got to play through some pain and now we got a week to get even more healthy and get back to 100 percent.’
The deep thigh bruise McQuaid suffered in the win over Texas in Las Vegas on Nov. 23 didn’t take long to go from bad to worse.
“I just had a bad thigh bruise with a lot of internal bleeding,” McQuaid said. “Then we got on the plane and I guess the altitude made it swell up really big and it was hard as rock. We took care of it.”
Added Izzo, “It was good to get McQuaid back. I thought he did all right considering he missed two straight weeks and now we have a much-needed week off. … Hopefully we’ll start practicing a get some of the freshmen worked in a little bit and get them moving forward.”