'Efficient' Aaron Henry scores 20, No. 23 Michigan State throttles No. 15 Rutgers 68-45
East Lansing — A win over Nebraska is one thing. Knocking off the No. 15 team in the country is another.
No. 23 Michigan State, coming off its first Big Ten victory over the weekend in Nebraska, validated that win by returning home on Tuesday night and defeating Rutgers, 68-45, at the Breslin Center. And in the process, the Spartans might be in the process of shaking off an 0-3 start to conference play that had started to create some second-guessing about Michigan State’s chances this season.
“I don't know if it was the lift of a beating Nebraska because it was getting to be a little weight on their shoulders,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But I thought tonight we played Michigan State basketball. We defended, we rebounded, we ran.
“That was a total team win, and it was needed. It was really needed to win a game the way Michigan State wins games. And we think we can clean up some of those things offensively, and if we keep our defense, which travels, then we got a chance to take some steps forward.”
It helps to take those steps when the best player on the team is proving he’s the best.
That happened again on Tuesday as Aaron Henry scored 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds, blocking four shots and getting a pair of steals for the Spartans (8-3, 2-3 Big Ten). It was the second straight game Henry reached the 20-point mark after a career-high 27 at Nebraska.
“Aaron Henry is about as efficient and playing about as well, other than the turnovers, as I could ask for the last two games,” Izzo said. “He’s starting to get that thing down where he's getting that two-foot stop in the paint and getting shots up. He’s done a hell of a job working on his three, but he's been very efficient.”
Henry was all of Michigan State’s offense early, scoring seven of the team’s first 11 points, and when it was still tight in the second half, a baseline jumper followed by a 3-pointer from the corner turned a six-point lead into an 11-point cushion, one that never got below nine points the rest of the way.
Of course, the junior was more focused on getting the win and getting the job done on both ends of the court.
“I look to stop momentum on both sides of the court, rebounding as well running my lane and control the things I can control,” Henry said. “You can point to the shooting and you can point at certain things, but just me being a player on the court on both ends, I try to be as good as I can for the guys on the court with me. I try to hold everybody accountable and we just got to continue to get better.”
Henry had some help as Joshua Langford added 11 points with seven coming in the final five minutes to help put the game away. Rocket Watts scored 11 and Joey Hauser pulled down 14 rebounds to go with nine points.
But the Spartans were also solid defensively, namely Thomas Kithier and Malik Hall, who combined to guard Ron Harper Jr., who entered the game averaging 22.1 points. He was held to 13, which led Rutgers (7-3, 3-3) while Jacob Young scored 11 for the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers entered the game shooting nearly 40% from 3-point range but was just 3-for-12 on Tuesday and shot 30.5% overall (18-for-59) in one of Michigan State’s best defensive outings in weeks.
“That was one of our better defensive performances in a couple of years,” Izzo said. “And it definitely was the best of the year because it was against a quality team that had size inside.”
It was clear from the outset that Henry was going to build off his last outing as he scored seven of Michigan State’s first seven points, including a 3-pointer that put the Spartans ahead, 11-4, and forced an early Rutgers timeout.
From there, the turnovers began to pile up. Michigan State gave the ball away on three of its first four possessions, and after settling down for a moment, it lost the ball on four consecutive possessions while failing to score for almost five minutes. However, the Spartans never lost the lead as Rutgers was 0-for-8 from 3-point range in the first half and was just 2-for-9 from the free-throw line.
Michigan State had a chance to push the lead to double digits, leading 22-14, but two straight turnovers led to two easy Rutgers buckets. Another layup in transition pulled the Scarlet Knights to within 22-20 before Hall scored on a drive to the hoop and Gabe Brown buried a 3-pointer in transition to put Michigan State up, 27-20.
After a pair of Rutgers free throws and one from A.J. Hoggard, the Spartans headed to halftime up, 28-22.
Michigan State maintained control early in the second half, and when Henry hit back-to-back jumpers — the second a 3-pointer — the Spartans had pushed their lead to 41-30 with 12:52 to play in the game. Michigan State’s lead grew to 15 on six straight points from Watts and after a surge from the Scarlet Knights, Hauser hit a much-needed 3-pointer with 8:45 to play to give Michigan State a 51-36 lead.
Rutgers scored four straight to cut Michigan State’s lead to 11, but the Spartans scored the next 10, getting five in a row from Joshua Langford to begin the run and capping it with a three-point play from Hall, giving Michigan State a 61-40 lead and effectively put the game away.
Michigan State now gets set to host Purdue on Friday with a chance to get back to .500 in the Big Ten.
“It was good to get one tonight on the home court the way we did it,” Henry said. “I felt like we defended and got back to some ways that our standards are here at Michigan State in terms of defense.
“But we still have a long way to go. We’re not complacent, we’re not satisfied. Rutgers is a great team, and to be able to play defense like that, I feel like that takes a certain level of awareness. … It means a lot to our team, but we can't be complacent at all.”