Waving off Winston? Freshman Henry gives Michigan State some valuable moxie

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Aaron Henry of the Michigan State Spartans attempts a shot while being guarded by Ethan Happ of the Wisconsin Badgers in the first half.

It was late in the game Tuesday night at Wisconsin – the final minute, in fact -- and Michigan State was clinging to a three-point lead.

The shot clock was winding down and there were less than 40 seconds to play in the game as the Spartans’ possession was starting to break down, something that isn’t exactly out of the ordinary when playing the Badgers, especially at the cauldron known more commonly as the Kohl Center.

With the shot clock at less than 10 seconds, freshmen Aaron Henry had the ball out on the wing, well beyond the 3-point line in front of the Michigan State bench. Sensing the moment, Spartans star guard Cassius Winston moved toward Henry and called for the ball.

That’s when it happened. Henry, the freshman, waved off the candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Well, at least that’s the way his teammates saw it.

“It was kind of broken play at that point,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said. “Aaron Henry called an iso and I didn’t think I’d ever see the day. But he called an iso …”

Back to whether he actually waved off Winston in a moment. What was clear was Henry wanted the ball, or at least he felt comfortable with it in his hands.

He started to attack toward the middle of the court but was cut off by Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10 Nate Reuvers. Henry stopped and kicked the ball to his left to Goins, who nailed a 3-pointer that effectively put the game away to give No. 11 Michigan State a huge 67-59 win.

It was a win, coupled with losses by Michigan and Purdue, that created quite the logjam at the top of the Big Ten standings with Michigan State (20-5, 11-3 Big Ten) tied with Michigan and Purdue a half-game back.

It also included the moment where Henry didn’t look like a freshman. It was a moment the Spartans have been waiting for, one that there have been glimpses of in the past. This time, it came along with a jumper in the lane three possessions earlier that gave Michigan State its 59-56 lead.

While Winston and Goins and Nick Ward all played critical roles, Henry’s willingness to make a play was just as vital, a sign, the Spartans hope, of growing confidence in the 6-6 wing from Indianapolis.

“Hopefully it’s soaring,” Goins said. “Everyone else on the team has got as much confidence as can be and every time he shots I think it’s going in. We see the work he puts in. We’ve seen him do it countless times before, so I’m hoping that he feels the same way as we do because we have all the respect for him.”

It hasn’t been easy for Henry, the one freshman from a five-man class that it was clear, from the start of the season, would get regular minutes in the rotation. But those minutes were supposed to be coming off the bench, giving Michigan State an added dose of athleticism.

But when the injuries started to set in – first to Matt McQuaid for three games, then Joshua Langford and the never-ending back problems for Kyle Ahrens – it led to a much larger role for Henry. That essentially became a permanent spot in the starting lineup once it was clear Langford would be lost for the season.

And there have been some impressive moments. His five points late in the game at Nebraska helped seal a Michigan State victory and his 12 points were vital in a big home win over Maryland. But the past couple of weeks Henry has looked more like, well, a freshman.

It led to him getting pulled from the starting lineup last week at Illinois, but he responded at Wisconsin with eight points, five rebounds and a pair of assists. Almost as important was his willingness to shoot the ball instead of give the ball up, even with defenders sagging back to guard against Henry driving the basket.

“He took a three, he can shoot at three but he’s not a great 3-point shooter,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I just said to get them into 15 (feet) and he did that and give him credit. He did what he was supposed to.”

Aaron Henry

That’s what Henry says he’s been trying to do to become a more complete offensive player.

“I’ve just got to keep working my way out,” said Henry, who is perfectly comfortable attacking the basket. “I feel like with those shots, start closer inside and work my way out during the game and I feel like things open up for me.

“(Defenders) aren’t forcing me. If they’re playing me soft I don’t have to shoot. It can be catch-and-go situation or roll up and he’s already in the paint, and I can get a full head of steam and I can just catch and go. The three is not a problem for me to hit it, just me getting over the hump in my head.”

And so what about waving off your star teammate?

Henry was incredulous, which, of course, drew some shots from Winston as the two sat next to each other in the locker room Tuesday night, every jab at each other that much more enjoyable because of the victory.

Winston: “Bro, I’m saying when I pop on the wing like that, don’t wave me off.”

Henry: “Bro, I didn’t wave you off.”

Winston: “You see the end of the game he waved me off?”

Reporter: “Yeah, I saw it.”

Winston: “You saw it?”

Henry: “Oh my …”

Winston: “Hit a couple buckets you gonna wave your boy off. That’s crazy.”

With that Winston let out a big laugh and headed out the door to the bus. Henry just shook his head.

The video replay doesn’t exactly show Henry waving Winston off, but that mattered little. The players were having fun, and the team was happy its young playmaker was ready to make plays.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau