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Spartans ignore shifts in Big Ten standings, focus on their own play

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It was an exciting night in the Big Ten on Wednesday, a pair of games going down to the wire, both decided by 3-pointers in the final seconds.

Maryland erased a double-digit deficit at Minnesota to maintain its two-game lead in the Big Ten while Rutgers, desperate for a big road win to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume, stormed back at Penn State to take a late two-point lead only to see the Nittany Lions bury the winner.

Aaron Henry

If those two shots hadn’t fallen, it would have ended up being a big night for No. 24 Michigan State. The next two games for the Spartans (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) happen to be at Maryland (23-5, 13-4) on Saturday and at Penn State (21-7, 11-6) on Tuesday. A Maryland loss would have put Michigan State a game behind with a chance to tie for first place on Saturday, while a Penn State loss would have put the Spartans a game up instead of tied for second place with the Nittany Lions.

Tough break, right?

Well, believe it or not, the Spartans weren’t too worked up about it. Tom Izzo was out recruiting, Aaron Henry was watching an NBA game and Cassius Winston was watching Maryland-Minnesota but focused more on the Spartans.

“Those games last night bothered me zero,” Izzo said after practice on Thursday, “because I still say that we have to play our best. If they lose a game and we don't, we got a chance, but we've dug our own hole and all we're going to worry about right now is us getting better and trying to win some games. We’ve got  three more ranked teams ahead of us led by the No. 1 team in the Big Ten in Maryland and they've been playing good. We had our hands full.

“They could have lost last night. Penn State could have lost last night. We could have beat both those teams, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves and we’ve just got to do what we can do to make sure this team's getting better.”

The Spartans have won two in a row after Tuesday’s victory over Iowa and feel like they’re finally starting to build some momentum at the right time of the year.

Winston was a star in the second half, Xavier Tillman was a defensive standout and Rocket Watts hit big shot after big shot. On top of that, Henry is playing the way many expected he would earlier in the season.

“Aaron Henry's playing the best basketball he's played since he's been here,” Izzo said. “He’s had four or five consistent games. He’s rebounding better, he’s defending better, he is becoming a complete player. Maybe he'll become Gary Harris before he's done, a guy that could do all those things. But I've been really pleased with the way he's played.”

Henry scored 17 in the win over Iowa while grabbing six rebounds and handing our four assists in almost 33 minutes.

“It’s just getting better, knowing that it's a marathon, not a sprint,” Henry said. “I gotta just continue to get better and to stay true to myself and just know that everything's gonna fall into place at the right time and I'm glad I'm playing better when we want to play our best basketball.”

The best will have to continue on Saturday as the Spartans try to avenge the loss at home to the Terrapins on Feb. 15. In that game, Michigan State held a seven-point lead with just more than three minutes to play but got outscored 14-0 to close the game.

That came a little more than a week after Michigan State couldn’t close at home against Penn State.

They could have gotten some help on Wednesday when it comes to chasing those teams down, but that hasn’t changed the way the Spartans are approaching the final week-and-a-half of the regular season.

“I’m just locked in to what we're doing, staying in the gym, watching film on us to see how we can get better and how we can continue to increase our level of play throughout the rest of the year,” Henry said.

So, you didn’t watch Maryland and Penn State win thrillers?

“I didn’t,” Henry said. “I watched the Celtics and Jazz last night. My TV doesn't get the Big Ten Network. So, Jason Tatum put on the show, so did Donovan Mitchell. So I was with that.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau