Lincoln, Neb. —You could understand if Gabe Brown was feeling a little bit gun shy.
Entering Thursday’s game at Nebraska, Michigan State’s sophomore forward had been having a hard time putting the ball in the basket. In the previous three games, Brown was just 1-for-11 shooting and hadn’t made a single 3-pointer.
But even though the ball wasn’t dropping, the ever-confident Brown said his belief in himself never wavered.
“Oh no,” he insisted after Michigan State’s 86-65 victory over Nebraska. “I’m still going to believe in my shot until the end of my basketball career. Always.”
Brown finally cashed in on that confidence against the Cornhuskers as the dam finally broke. Brown scored a career-high 17 points while 5-for-8 from 3-point range, also a career best.
“It was really positive for him,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “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.”
It was more of what the Spartans had been expecting from Brown, who had scored in double figures in three straight Big Ten games before beginning his slump back in late January against Northwestern. In the six games leading into Nebraska, he’d been held scoreless three times and made just two 3-pointers on 11 attempts.
He battled the flu during part of that stretch, but Brown wasn’t using it as an excuse.
Michigan State's Jack Hoiberg, Gabe Brown, Kyle Ahrens and Cassius Winston talk about the Spartans' victory over Nebraska. The Detroit News
“It played a factor for just a tiny bit, but the last couple of games it did not play a factor,” Brown said. “It was just that I didn't come to play. That's the one thing that I need to do all the time. I have to come to play, come to play for my teammates, the coaches the fans, everybody.”
He was doing that against the Cornhuskers as Michigan State opened the game going 4-for-17 while digging itself into a six-point hole.
That’s when Brown started to get going. He nailed two straight 3-pointers to help spark a 14-2 run for the Spartans that gave them a lead they would not relinquish. Brown hit two more 3s later in the first half as the Spartans hit three straight to head to the locker room with a three-point lead.
Brown nailed another from long range in the second half as he was among five players that scored in double figures as both Kyle Ahrens and Aaron Henry had big games, as well. Ahrens played nearly 22 minutes while scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds as Henry scored 13 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out five assists.
“I feel like I had my hand all over the game,” Henry said. “Defensively as well as rebounding, assists scoring the ball. This was me just being the player that my team needs me to be.”
It’s exactly what the Spartans (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten) have been counting on from the likes of Brown and Henry while the performance from Ahrens can be an added bonus if his health holds up down the stretch.
“It was it was big for Gabe, it was big for Kyle, it was big for Aaron,” Izzo said. “All three of those guys were the difference in us winning or losing.”
They could be the difference moving forward, as well. Winning a third straight Big Ten championship is a long shot at this point, but there will be no room for error if the Spartans expect to keep the pressure on. They host Iowa on Tuesday before back-to-back road games with Maryland and Penn State then close at home against Ohio State.
After that, it’s tournament time when Brown and company will need to be at their best. On Thursday night at Nebraska, there was a glimpse of what things could be like for Michigan State if they are.