Michigan State goes small, again, to earn key win and keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – When Michigan State went small at Indiana on Saturday and seemed to unlock an offense that had been struggling to find an identity all season.

With Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown on the floor together, the offense took off, scoring 52 second-half points in that win over the Hoosiers. So, when Michigan State took the floor Tuesday night at the Breslin Center against No. 5 Illinois, it was the same foursome joined by center Julius Marble.

It was the right combination, once again, as all four guards played more than 30 minutes and each played a significant role in Michigan State’s 81-72 victory, one that ended Illinois’ seven-game win streak and kept alive the Spartans NCAA Tournament hopes.

“Guys are just more connected, honestly,” Henry said when asked if the new lineup has changed the trajectory of Michigan State’s season. “I don't know what to point to. Guys are just putting the pieces together and it's a good time to do it I guess with the stretch of games that we have left. But I really couldn't tell you what made us do it. Maybe guys are just fed up with how we've been playing. If being fed up is what it is, then let’s be fed up more often.”

Michigan State's Aaron Henry celebrates in front of Illinois' Trent Frazier after a basket in the second half of the 81-72 Spartan victory at the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Feb. 23, 2021.

Henry has been one of the few constants all season for Michigan State (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) and he was again on Tuesday, scoring 20 points, grabbing six rebounds and handing out five assists. He had plenty of help from Langford, too, who scored 13 and grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.

Watts was also efficient scoring 15 points and handing out five assists with just one turnover while Brown wasn’t as productive offensively, scoring only five points, but was a factor on defense the entire game.

“Aaron and Josh, I mean, how can Josh get 16 rebounds?” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “That's Charlie Bell, Jason Richardson type. And Aaron Henry is just becoming a man now. He's really doing a lot of different things, and had to guard, and we kind of wore them down.”

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They wore the Fighting Illini down without wearing down themselves. That was quite the feat considering Henry played all but one minute, Langford played 36, Brown logged 32 minutes and Watts 31.

“That’s not the way it's going to be the next couple of games,” Izzo insisted. “There are just too many games in such a short period of time, so these other guys are going to have to step up.”

Just don’t tell that to Henry, who’s played 40 minutes at Indiana and has no desire to sit and watch.

“I don't get tired,” Henry said. “I won't get tired. I don’t have time to get tired. So that's how I feel.”

Izzo might not plan to play the foursome that many minutes over the last five games, but with everything on the line, they better be ready to spend most of their time on the court.

“We’re just playing Spartan basketball,” Watts said. “We never give up and the Big Ten is crazy right now. We’ll always come into the game with a fight and know the opponent is going to be a great team with great players. It’s just about how we come out and how we're connected and how we practice. We keep doing that, we’ll keep winning.”

Michigan State's Joey Hauser, who had 13 points in the game, walks off the court with head coach Tom Izzo after the 81-72 Spartan victory.

Hauser heating up

Joey Hauser continues to come off the bench for the Spartans, and so far, it’s been the right move.

He’s slowly been building his confidence after struggling offensively for the better part of the last two months, and on Tuesday, Hauser played a big role when it mattered most.

With Michigan State up nine and Illinois on the verge of pulling within two possessions, Hauser hit a deep 3-pointer with 2:57 to play to push the Spartans’ lead back to double digits. He then hit both ends of a one-and-one free throw twice in the final minutes to help clinch the game, finishing with 13 points.

“The other guy I was happy for was Joey Hauser,” Izzo said. “He had those two big threes, made those big clutch one-and-one free throws. He got a couple of rebounds. Joey Hauser, he too played like…I'm hoping he'll continue to grow.”

Efficient play

The Spartans connected on 54.2 percent of their field goals, the fifth time this season the team has hit at least half of its shots from the field

… Michigan State committed just eight turnovers, the fifth time this season with less than 10.

… The Spartans received 22 points from its bench, the 14th time this season with at least 20 points from the bench.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau