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'Best game of his life': Aaron Henry leads the way as Michigan State beats Nebraska

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State has been looking for a go-to guy all season.

That was the case early when the Spartans were unbeaten in non-conference play and it was especially critical when they began Big Ten action by losing their first three.

If Saturday night at Nebraska is any indication, the guy many thought all along was that go-to guy finally showed what can happen when he is.

That guy, of course, is Aaron Henry, and he was nearly unstoppable on Saturday, scoring a career-high 27 to lead No. 17 Michigan State to an 84-77 victory over at Pinnacle Bank Arena, giving the Spartans their first Big Ten victory of the season and halting a three-game skid.

Michigan State forward Aaron Henry makes a shot over Nebraska guard Shamiel Stevenson in the first half.

“I thought it was the best game of his life here,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the junior captain. “Because it wasn't just his offense. He hit a couple of 3s, he drove the ball, he went off two feet, he guarded, he rebounded, he ran his lane. He should have had a dunk and could have (scored) 30. I'm really pleased with Aaron.”

It was the best all-around performance from a Michigan State player this season. Henry was 10-for-16 from the field, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range, matching the most 3-pointers he’s had in a single game.

But after the game, Henry was hardly thinking about his numbers. Instead, after winning back-to-back Big Ten titles in his first two seasons, Henry was focused on what his night meant for the team.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 84, Nebraska 77

“I was just a small piece of the puzzle,” Henry said. “I may have scored more than other nights and played one of my better nights, but I'm a team guy. I'm all about that and the focus today was just to get a win; anything we can do to get a win. That's anybody that comes to Michigan State. That’s the standard we're held to, and I set a career high for myself and that’s fine and dandy, but I want to win. That’s all I care about.”

Henry certainly did his share to get that win while Joshua Langford added 15 points for the Spartans (7-3, 1-3 Big Ten), Gabe Brown chipped in 10.

And as satisfying as it was to get that victory and avoid an 0-4 league start for the first time ever under Izzo, it was far from perfect. The Spartans opened a 17-point lead early in the second half, only to allow the Cornhuskers to chip away and pull within five points in the final minute.

“That was a good win, but it's not good enough,” Izzo said. “When we have a 17-point lead, you’ve got to learn to step on them. We did play good stretches, so now we're starting to play some good stretches but we just need to do it more consistently.

“We won our first game and we’re 1-0 in 2021. That's how I'm gonna have to look at it for now.”

Teddy Allen scored 23 to lead Nebraska (4-7, 0-4), getting 19 of those points in the second half. Trey McGowens added 20 points for the Cornhuskers while Kobe Webster added 10.

“I thought our energy was phenomenal tonight,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought it was where it needed to be to have a chance to win that game. Against a team like this coming off three losses, which doesn't happen to Tom Izzo's teams very often, they had a week to prepare and I knew they were going to come out hard and play with great energy.

“We’ve got to find a way to play a complete 40 minutes, but I thought we took a step in the right direction tonight.”

Michigan State was clearly ready to play with more energy in the opening 20 minutes, led by 17 points from Henry on 6-for-10 shooting. He also grabbed a pair of rebounds and had a steal as the Spartans used an 8-0 run later in the half to go from trailing by one to leading, 29-23, with 5:47 left.

The advantage eventually grew to eight and the Spartans led, 40-33, at halftime. The Spartans were solid on defense as Nebraska made a few deep 3-pointers. McGowens did his best to keep the Cornhuskers in the game, scoring 15 points in the first half as Nebraska was 4-for-9 from 3-point range.

Things picked up even more in the second half as Michigan State scored the first seven points and used a 12-2 run to take a 52-35 lead after Henry’s third 3-pointer, matching the most 3-pointers in one game for the junior.

The Cornhuskers hung tough, however, as Allen scored eight points in a five-minute stretch to help trim Michigan State’s advantage to 61-50 with just less than 12 minutes to play. Allen kept rolling from there, hitting two more 3-pointers as Nebraska cut the Spartans’ lead to 64-58 with 9:51 to play.

After another Allen 3-pointer made it 66-61, Michigan State scored the next five to extend the lead back to 10 and eventually pushed it to 75-64 after back-to-back buckets from Rocket Watts and Langford. The Huskers kept chipping away and got within five points in the final minute, but the Spartans made enough free throws to secure the victory.

“We needed to win a game,” Izzo said. “It’s not a huge win, but it is the first win in the new year and I'm gonna make it that. But I'm not going to be satisfied with anything because that's not who we are and what we are right now.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau