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'Big' effort from supporting cast helps Michigan State power past Nebraska

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb. — For virtually the entire season, Michigan State has been looking for help for Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.

On most nights, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and the double-double machine are there for the Spartans, providing most of the offensive spark for a team that has been desperately trying to find some consistency for the better part of four months.

On Thursday night at Nebraska, the Spartans finally got some help for the two stars, and it came from far more than one person. Gabe Brown burst out of a recent slump by scoring a career-high 17 points along with a career-best five 3-pointers while Kyle Ahrens scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds with Aaron Henry chipping in 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

Michigan State's Cassius Winston looks to pass the ball against Nebraska's Dachon Burke Jr. during the second half.

It all helped Michigan State cruise to an 86-65 victory at Pinnacle Bank Arena as Winston still scored 23 points and Tillman added 10 points and 11 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the season.

“Yeah, it was really positive for him,” Izzo said of Brown. “I thought we moved the ball pretty good, we got him the ball, he was ready to shoot and he made some shots. He even made a couple drives. I was really happy with him. They’re not an easy team to guard, those guards are very quick, and I thought that even Gabe did a decent job in that.

“So it was it was big for Gabe, it was big for Kyle, it was big for Aaron. All three of those guys were the difference in us winning or losing.”

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 86, Nebraska 65

Brown had scored only two points in the previous three games and was shooting 1-for-11 in those games, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers. It made Thursday’s breakout all the more impressive.

“It felt good,” Brown said. “My teammates got it to me in the right spots. It really just felt good to get a win, that was really the main part. I know things have been down for me, but Coach has had me keeping my head high, the other players have been keeping my head high. Tonight was a night where I just had a good game.”

Michigan State overcame a season-high 22 turnovers as Nebraska failed to take advantage, shooting just 34.8% (23-for-66) from the field. Dachon Burke scored 21 to lead the Cornhuskers (7-19, 2-13) while Haanif Cheatem chipped in 14 and Yvan Ouedraogo added 10 points.

“In the second half, we came out and had three 3s hit every single part of the rim and bounce out,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Then we miss two layups, and we’re done. It’s just kind of that same thing. We struggled to recover from that. We start pressing and have bad possessions then we don’t get back in transition. We’re trying to chase it down and get it all back at once. I think we cut it back to seven, then they hit a 3. we turned it over, then they hit another 3 to push it up to 13, and we never threatened after that.”

The Spartans get the weekend off before heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. The tough stretch begins Tuesday at home against Iowa followed by a trip to Maryland on the weekend. After that it’s a trip to Penn State followed by the finale at home against Ohio State.

Continuing the performance from Thursday night will be critical.

“It’s just realizing that we can't be complacent,” Henry said. “With how we played tonight, we still did some things wrong and have got some things to correct, but it’s just knowing that we always can get better, win or lose.”

Michigan State started quickly on Thursday, but Nebraska didn’t take long to answer, rolling off nine straight points to take an 11-7 lead six minutes into the game and pushing it to 15-9 as the Spartans opened the game shooting 4-for-17.

However, Brown nailed the first of four first-half 3-pointers to help ignite a 14-2 run for the Spartans that gave them a 23-17 lead with 9:45 left in the opening half. Michigan State made four 3-pointers in a row during the run, getting a pair from Brown as well as one each from Winston and Ahrens.

Michigan State continued to hit from long range to close the half as Brown made two more 3-pointers while Ahrens and Henry scored from deep, giving Michigan State a 39-36 lead at the break.

Nebraska, meanwhile, kept it close thanks to 18 points from Burke while taking advantage of 12 Michigan State turnovers.

“I was so disappointed in the turnovers,” Izzo said. “Everybody charges those differently and they had 16 points off turnovers. They scored 65 and I thought it was 60 points off turnovers. That's what it felt like from where I was.”

The Spartans pushed the lead to seven early in the second half before the Huskers cut the margin to 48-46 with 14:39 left. Michigan State responded with a 11-1 run to take a 59-47 lead with just more than 11 minutes to play.

Nebraska battled back to pull within 61-54, but the Spartans got back-to-back 3-pointers from Brown and Ahrens to take a 67-54 lead with 8:07 left. The lead grew from there as Michigan State improved to .500 away from home.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau