By Stephen Whyno, AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — For all of Michigan State’s veteran experience, its freshmen led the way into the Elite Eight.
Aaron Henry scored a career-best 20 and fellow frosh Gabe Brown had 15 as the second-seeded Spartans beat third-seeded LSU 80-63 on Friday night to move on to the NCAA Tournament’s East Region final. Coach Tom Izzo’s upperclassman-heavy team is one victory away from its first Final Four appearance since 2015.
“They were huge tonight in a lot of ways,” standout point guard Cassius Winston said of Henry and Brown. “They won the game. They were confident, they trusted in their abilities, they took their shots that they were supposed to and they just stepped up in a big way.
Michigan State took it to LSU on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 34-20. At halftime, Michigan State had as many offensive rebounds as LSU had total rebounds, at times making it look like 5-on-4 when the ball came off the rim.
“They wanted it more, and they got it,” LSU’s Naz Reid said.
It didn’t bounce off the rim much for the Spartans early as they took advantage of an LSU defense that left them uncontested 3-point shots. Michigan State had five 3s in the first 10 minutes alone, and LSU never adjusted defensively.
“You saw the way they were guarding them,” Spartans guard Matt McQuaid said. “They were like 3 or 4 feet off Gabe on that one 3. I was like, ‘Dang, do they know he can shoot?'”
Tremont Waters scored 10 points during a 13-0 LSU run spanning the end of the first half into the second to cut the deficit to four. Then Michigan State blew the game open again with 3-pointers. The Spartans hit four of their first five 3-point attempts out of halftime to pull away.
“That was kind of a shot in the foot because we knew they were capable of hitting those 3s,” Waters said.
Henry did his best Draymond Green impression as the do-it-all 6-foot-6 forward was all over the offensive end of the floor. He had eight rebounds and six assists and was 9 of 14 from the floor.
“It was one of those nights where I just felt like the basket was huge,” Henry said. “And I’m glad it was that way tonight.”
Brown came in averaging 2 points a game and scored more than he had in his past 11 games combined. Brown had just five points in the Spartans’ past 12 games but became a central figure against LSU.
“Gabe Brown — he might’ve had a career, and by career I mean the whole season,” Izzo said.
Winston went toe-to-toe with Waters and finished with 17 points as one of four Michigan State players in double figures.
Michigan State faces the winner of the matchup between overall top seed Duke and No. 4 seed Virginia Tech in the regional final Sunday. This is Michigan State’s fifth Elite Eight appearance in the past 11 years and 10th under Izzo.
WHAT NOW, LSU?
The loss plunges LSU into uncertainty given the corruption scandal that left coach Will Wade suspended indefinitely for comments he reportedly made about his recruiting efforts on a phone call that was wiretapped as part of an FBI investigation. Wade, who had been replaced by interim coach Tony Benford, is expected to appear at a federal trial April 22.
It’s unclear what ramifications the program will face. Freshman Javonte Smart, who was a surprise starter against Michigan State, is the player Wade was recorded as saying he’d “take care of.” Meanwhile, Reid and Waters are candidates to enter the NBA Draft.
Michigan State big man Nick Ward said he expects to play Sunday after leaving in the second half with another left hand injury. Ward, who was playing with a brace on the hand after breaking it in February and missing five games, landed on it and said he was fine despite a deep bone bruise.
WINSTON MAKES HISTORY
With his fifth assist, Winston set a new Michigan State single-season record. He finished with eight. Mateen Cleaves set the previous record of 274 in 1998-99, the year before leading the school to a national title.
Michigan State versus Duke would be their sixth NCAA Tournament meeting and first since 2015. Duke has won four of the previous five. The Spartans have never faced Virginia Tech in the tournament.
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