Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens beats the clock with balky back in victory over Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan's David DeJulius and Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens go one-on-one near the basket in the first half.

Ann Arbor — Kyle Ahrens knows he’s got about 15 minutes these days.

That’s about the point in each game where anything more is gravy. The Michigan State junior has been battling a bad back for weeks, and after aggravating it during Wednesday’s victory over Rutgers, there was some doubt whether he’d be able to play Sunday in a top-10 showdown at Michigan.

But there was Ahrens, as usual, going through warmups at Crisler Center and finding a way to squeeze out nearly 23 minutes in No. 10 Michigan State’s 77-70 victory over No. 7 Michigan on Sunday.

“It’s frustrating,” Ahrens said of the uncertainty of the injury. “But these guys have my back like I have their back. Kenny (Goins) kept coming over and telling me stuff like that. It’s the reason why I do it and why I keep going.”

Watching the 6-foot-6 Ahrens grimace his way through games can be hard to watch at times. After each hard fall to the court, there’s the same delay before teammates finally pull Ahrens to his feet.

He won’t play any other way. It’s easy to understand for a guy who’s had his share of injury concerns throughout his career, but knows how vital he is to Michigan State’s success. It’s 100 mph or nothing for Ahrens.

“If they have me in, I there I give my all — no matter what,” Ahrens said. “That’s the mindset I always have. I’m happy we could enjoy this one.”

The wins, no doubt, ease the pain a bit for Ahrens, who has shown incredible versatility throughout his career. He can play just about anywhere in a pinch, but with Joshua Langford out for the season and Aaron Henry working through the ups and downs of being a freshman, Ahrens needs to be solid on the wing.

He was again in Sunday’s win. The number won’t jump out at anyone — one point, three rebounds, three steals. However, the number that was essential was the amount of time he played against the Wolverines — 22:53.

That, in itself, is an accomplishment.

“Around 15 minutes into the game it starts getting really tight,” Ahrens said. “Then when I come out and sit down it’s over. I won’t be able to move. So, you saw me, I went out to the tunnel a couple times just to run up and down the tunnel to stay warm so I could come back if they need me. Staying loose is the main thing.”

He stayed loose as long as he could on Sunday. His final two stints lasted barely a minute-and-a-half. But he’d put in his time by then, and now the Spartans get a few days off before heading to Indiana on Saturday.

Until then, it will be the same routine for Ahrens.

“Stay healthy, and take it day by day,” he said.

Air-tight play

Taking care of the ball hasn’t exactly been Michigan State’s strength this season.

The Spartans entered Sunday’s matchup with Michigan averaging 12.9 turnovers a game, among the worst in the Big Ten. That all changed at Crisler Center.

Michigan State committed a season-low six turnovers as Michigan got just five points off those turnovers.

“I thought we had to not turn the ball over, which we did a phenomenal job,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “especially for us having only six.”

Three times this season Michigan State had just seven turnovers in a game. More often it’s been at the other end of the spectrum as the Spartans have handed the ball away 20 or more times twice and gave it up 14 times in Wednesday’s win over Rutgers.

Slam dunks

Michigan State shot 80 percent (24-for-30) from the free-throw line. It was the third straight game the Spartans have been better than 80 percent from the line. They’re shooting 76.6 in Big Ten games, the best in the conference.

… Fifth-year senior Kenny Goins had 16 points and 11 rebounds to record his fifth double-double of the season.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau