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All week, Aaron Henry talked about not having time to be tired.
After playing all 40 minutes of Michigan State basketball’s comeback at Indiana. After 39 minutes in Tuesday’s win over No. 4 Illinois and 33 minutes in Thursday’s upset of No. 5 Ohio State, shortened only by first-half foul trouble.
Then came Sunday’s visit to Maryland, the Spartans’ fourth game in eight days. The shots were on target, but they didn’t go through the net.
“I took what the defense gave me, I just missed shots,” said Henry, MSU’s junior captain. “I was short on a lot. I was right on, but a few just fell short. … A lot of people were short. It was a rare left or right miss.”
Henry gave credit to the Terrapins’ defense and ability to make shots in MSU’s 73-55 loss at Xfinity Center in College Park, Maryland. The Spartans made just 8 of 28 3-point attempts and 19 of 57 shots from the field.
But Tom Izzo’s team, as it has for much of the season, needed to play from behind after giving up the first 11 points of the game. And the early hole MSU (13-10, 7-10 Big Ten) dug itself at the outset of Big Ten play leaves the Spartans continuing to fight back for their NCAA tournament hopes.
“I didn't think we moved the ball. And I didn't think we moved bodies (defensively),” Izzo said. “To me, that was the worst first 6 minutes that we played all year. In a couple of years. I mean, I just thought we were standing around. Was it because we were — I don't know why.”
"Fatigued" was a word Izzo and Henry avoided, even though Sunday was MSU’s fourth game of seven over the final 15 days of the regular season. The Spartans managed to stay within about 10 points of Maryland for most of the game, eventually cutting it to 49-44 with just under 10 minutes.
But anytime MSU felt some mojo, the Terrapins (15-10, 9-9) found a way to swing the momentum back in their favor. Hakim Hart’s 3-pointer capped a 9-2 Maryland run, and Donta Scott drained another from deep, Maryland’s eighth of the game, less than a minute after Hart’s to seal the win.
The Terps made 4 of 5 from deep early to build the cushion and hit 50% of their 3s for the game against an MSU perimeter defense that had been the best in Big Ten play, limiting opponents to 30.6% on 3-point tries entering Sunday. Maryland shot 48.4% overall while making 10 of 18 second-half shots.
“It's kind of hard to crawl back when a team gets up big like that,” Langford said. “We had a lot of mental mistakes defensively that we can't have.”
He and Henry combined to score 23 points on 7 of 29 shooting.
The differences in play could be the combination of a physically fresh Maryland, which had a week off between games, meeting the Spartans coming off Tuesday’s 78-71 grinder with the Illini and Thursday’s 71-67 war with the Buckeyes.
“I don't know if that was fatigue, you’d have to ask those guys. I even hate using the word,” Izzo said. “But I can't think of any time in my career where I played this many games — and this many big games, and this many (styles) of games — in such a short period of time.”
The Terps also made 23 of 24 at the free-throw line against MSU, with Eric Ayala going 13 of 13 and leading them with 22 points. The Spartans committed 19 fouls, moving their feet slowly on defense while both in the paint and attempting to close out on Maryland’s shooters.
MSU’s game with Illinois was one that got postponed Jan. 23 while Izzo’s program endured a 20-day hiatus between games due to COVID-19 issues. The Terrapins — winners of five straight – had only one postponed Big Ten game to make up against Nebraska, originally scheduled Jan. 16 in College Park. They made it up by hosting the Cornhuskers for back-to-back home games Feb. 16-17, winning both at home instead of making the trip to Nebraska.
“That team gets seven days off, and we get these games the way we've had,” said Izzo, who has pushed all season to do whatever's necessary to get the 20 league games in. “And it was a factor. … (The Terps) got a couple days off, and I thought they played good.
“I've been for (making up and playing) every game, so there's no excuse on it. But there's a reality to it. And so the reality is we were in two of the toughest games ever. And I think it took something out of those guys.”
Henry entered Saturday averaging 19.1 points and 34.1 minutes over his past eight games. And Maryland coach Mark Turgeon sent three or four defenders at the 6-foot-6 swingman every time he touched the ball in the paint.
After making 4 of 6 shots to open the game, Henry missed his final 10 attempts and didn’t hit a shot in the second half, going 0 for 8 from the field and hitting just two free throws with 3:44 to play. He finished with 11 points while Langford, who scored 12, made just 1 of 7 in the second half and 3 of 13 for the game.
Henry and Langford each played 36 minutes. Junior Gabe Brown logged a career-high 39 minutes, his fourth in a row of 29- or more, and went 2 of 5 for seven points and six rebounds.
“Whether we're tired or not, it doesn't matter. We're playing for a lot,” Henry said. “This was our last game of February. I've played in March before, I understand what it takes. I mean, at this time, everybody around the country's legs are tired just from the duration of the season. I'll never use it as an excuse, no matter how I feel.”
The problem now for Izzo and his team is there are no more breaks, between now and whenever the season ends, regardless of whether he gets into his 23rd straight NCAA tournament.
MSU hosts Indiana on Tuesday (8 p.m./Big Ten Network) and beat the Hoosiers, 78-71, on Feb. 20 to spark the three-game win streak that ended Sunday. The Spartans close the regular season with two games against No. 3 Michigan, on Thursday in Ann Arbor and next Sunday at Breslin Center in East Lansing, then quickly head to Indianapolis the following week for what likely will be a first- or second-day game in the conference tournament.
“They gave me everything they could give me. It's the reality of what we're going through,” Izzo said. “We gotta get them freshened up somehow because they got still a lot to play for if you ask me.”
What happens next will determine how difficult it will be to play into the league title game on March 14, which is Selection Sunday. The NCAAs begin with the First Four games March 16-17 at Indiana’s Assembly Hall and Purdue’s Mackey Arena.
“The margin of error is really small right now,” Langford said. “So we have to be really focused and locked in as a unit.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball looks tired, avoids calling it 'fatigue'