Fresh spin: Career nights from Henry, Brown help carry Michigan State into Elite Eight
Washington — Youth was served on Friday night, and in the process, Michigan State moved one step away from reaching the Final Four.
Behind career nights from freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, No. 2 Michigan State jumped out early on No. 3 LSU in the East Region semifinals at Capital One Arena, pushed back a second-half surge from the Tigers and rolled to an 80-63 victory.
“Aaron Henry, coming through,” junior Cassius Winston announced as he and his young teammate entered the locker room after the game.
“GB is big time, now,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins hollered from the corner as Brown was surrounded by cameras.
As Henry settled in, junior Nick Ward asked if he could have Henry’s autograph.
Yeah, it was a happy group, and why not? The Spartans had just reached the Elite Eight for the 10th time under coach Tom Izzo, continuing a run that is quickly putting the last three years of NCAA Tournament frustration in the rearview mirror.
Michigan State (31-6) advances to Sunday’s regional final where it will take on the winner of the late game between No. 1 Duke and No. 4 Virginia Tech. A win there would send the Spartans to Minneapolis next week for the program’s 10th Final Four.
“Amazing,” Winston said when asked to sum up his feelings. “Finally being in that position after the work we put in, the time we spent, the ups and downs we’ve been though. I’m just thankful to be in this position.”
He and the Spartans are in it, in large part, because of the two freshmen. Henry finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Spartans while Brown scored 15, hitting four 3-pointers, also a career best.
“It was one of those nights where I thought the basket was huge,” Henry said. “I'm glad that it was that way tonight. Just my teammates looking out for me and getting me the ball in certain positions. And Coach put me in great spots to score. It was all key tonight. It just wasn't on me. Thanks to my coach and my players for doing that for me.”
Henry has been a big part of the rotation all season, making his emergence at least predictable. For Brown, it came out of nowhere. His 16 minutes were the most in the last six games, which included not playing at all in two. But with senior Matt McQuaid in foul trouble, Brown took advantage.
“Just all the work we put in each and every day,” Brown said of what he was thinking. “I felt confident in my shot today and felt I could go out there and help my teammates. It’s great for us. Aaron played a great game. He stopped some of their best guards. He had a great game.”
Henry and Brown got some help. Winston scored 17 and handed out eight assists while Xavier Tillman chipped in 12 points and eight rebounds with Goins scoring six and pulling down 11 rebounds.
It all made up for Goins and McQuaid struggling from the field. At one point, Michigan State was up 17 in the first half when the seniors were a combined 0-for-8. But both made big shots in the second half with Goins nailing a couple 3s and McQuaid getting six straight in the final minutes to push back one final LSU surge.
“Gabe's been working. He knows he can shoot it,” Izzo said. “We did have a game plan of the way they funneled in to come to those two-foot stops, and inside-out threes are the best threes. And I've got to admit we hit some. … Aaron was, I thought, phenomenal. And Gabe was — I'm not kidding you, I think 15 points. I'm not sure he scored that this year. And everybody had to be ready because we had to step up.”
Tremont Waters scored 23 for LSU (28-7). Kavell Bigby-Williams added 11 points for the Tigers while Naz Reid chipped in 10 points and nine rebounds.
“Henry, we played off of them a little bit so we could help inside on Tillman,” LSU interim coach Tony Benford said. “And he hit a couple early, hit that one early and got going. And Brown came in, hit a couple of threes early. Both of those guys, give them credit, they're good players. They made plays and hit big shots. They needed to.”
It was all Michigan State in the first half as the Spartans scored the first eight points of the game, forcing LSU to take a timeout less than two minutes into the game after Henry and Winston hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
The timeout did little to slow the Spartans, who made six of their first nine shots and went up 22-11 on a triple from Winston. LSU started to get back into it, pulling within 25-17 with 9:28 left in the first half before Michigan State started to take control once again.
A 15-6 surge for the Spartans put them ahead, 40-23, with 2:10 to play in the half after Nick Ward scored on a jump-hook. But the Tigers built some momentum headed into the locker room as they scored the final five points of the half, including a 3-pointer from Waters to cut Michigan State’s lead to 40-28 at the break.
LSU came storming out of the locker room, scoring the first eight points for a 13-0 run that began late in the first half. Waters scored the first seven as LSU eventually pulled within 45-41 with 16:44 to play. But Michigan State answered with an 11-0 run, which began with a Brown triple and include 3-pointers from Henry and Goins. It gave Michigan State a 56-41 lead with 14:41 to play and forced an LSU timeout and eventually pushed the lead to 66-48 before LSU started to put together its final surge.
Two straight 3-pointers from Waters got things going and four in a row from Reid pulled the Tigers with 70-60 with just more than four minutes to play. But McQuaid scored six points in just more than two minutes to help the Spartans put the game away.
“I think it says how focused we were,” Winston said. “We knew they were going to make a run. That's a really talented team. They have a lot of talented players and they've got the capability of making runs. We knew they would make multiple runs, just like we did. That's the nature of the tournament.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 1 DUKE
Tip-off: 5:05 p.m., Sunday, Capital One Arena, Washington
Records: Michigan State 31-6; Duke 32-5
Next up: Winner advances to Final Four and will face West Region champion, Gonzaga or Texas Tech.