Aaron Henry marshals trio of Spartans freshmen playing extended minutes in win
State College, Pa. — It wasn’t exactly how Aaron Henry wanted to get this first career start, but the Michigan State freshman admitted it was a big moment, nonetheless.
Taking over for the injured Kyle Ahrens, the Spartans freshman played a career-high 25 minutes in No. 6 Michigan State’s 71-56 victory over Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.
“It was huge,” Henry said. “It was huge for me and my family, obviously. I got the nod earlier this week and told my dad and mom and we were excited about it. It’s not the way I wanted with two guys being injured, but individually it was a great day for me.”
It’s been a steady climb for Henry, the one member of the five-person freshmen class that has been a regular part of the Spartans’ rotation. He had big moments early in the season, namely eight points and six rebounds he had in 21 minutes in a victory over Texas. And he was important down the stretch in last weekend’s victory at Ohio State.
But with Joshua Langford missing his fourth straight game with an ankle injury and Kyle Ahrens out with a bad back, the Spartans turned to Henry in the starting lineup along with extended minutes for freshmen Gabe Brown and Foster Loyer.
Brown played a career-high 21 minutes and had three points and four rebounds while Loyer had arguably his best game, scoring seven points and committing only one turnover in 11 minutes, hitting two big jumpers in the first half.
“They were more poised out there, lot more confident,” junior guard Cassius Winston said of the freshmen. “Foster did good job finding his spots, leading the team, holding it down. He was solid out there. Gabe did a great job rebounding and bringing effort. They got out there and weren’t nervous or anything and played with poise and played their role.”
As well as Henry and Brown played, the continued progression for Loyer could be one of the most important developments for Michigan State. More often, Winston is being asked to play 35 minutes a game while junior Matt McQuaid frequently fills in at point guard.
But as Loyer has gotten more comfortable, his playing time as increased.
“For me the biggest thing is go out and play my game,” Loyer said. “Part of my game is go in there and knock down open shots and put my teammates in a position to win. Whether it’s knocking down shots or making a pass, I’m gonna go out there and do whatever I have to do. To have two shots go down in first half was big for me. I was just able to go out there and help the team win.”
Izzo, who is notoriously hard on his point guards, was pleased with Loyer.
“He did a pretty good job, made some good plays, a couple nice passes and made a couple nice shots,” Izzo said. “That was one of his better games. And again, it’s hard to evaluate him because at times the three freshmen were in at the same time. Those aren’t Duke’s freshman. No insult to us, just fact of life, and that makes it hard on a point guard.”
The status of Langford and Ahrens will weigh heavily on how much the freshmen continue to see regular playing time.
Langford has now missed four games with an injured left ankle. Izzo said earlier in the week that he hopes to have a better idea early this week as to where Langford is. The plan was to remove the boot from his left foot and see how the ankle has responded to treatment.
As for Ahrens, who is listed as day-to-day, it’s been harder to pinpoint exactly when he first hurt his back. Izzo said he believed Ahrens tweaked his back in the Ohio State victory on a drive and dunk where he landed awkwardly and aggravated it on Tuesday against Penn State when he hit the floor hard while trying to draw a charge.
“We’re gonna have to get better with those freshmen until we get those other guys back,” Izzo said. “It might not be for a while. I have no idea. You can’t make excuses but Aaron and Gabe gotta get a lot better, especially Arron because he’s capable of doing more and he’s got to do more.”
Michigan State matched a program record by winning its 18th straight regular-season Big Ten game. The Spartans won their final 12 games of the 2017-18 regular season and have won six straight this season.
The record for consecutive conference wins was set when Michigan State won the final 15 games in 1998-99 before winning the first three in 1999-2000. The Spartans have also won their last 10 conference road games, a school record.