WASHINGTON — Aaron Henry finally answered that eyes-bulging, vein-popping verbal fusillade that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo launched at him last week. He made his response Friday night, and it consisted of this: “Thank you.”
Henry never brooded over the tongue-lashing, never grew withdrawn over becoming part of a national debate about whether coaches go too far. He had the game of his life in an 80-63 win over LSU that put the Spartans in the Elite Eight, and then he expressed his gratitude.
“Not knowing who Coach was and him getting on you when you first get on campus . . . it’s a little confusing when he talks to you sometimes,” he said with a grin. “It’s all love. Now having a game like this and the previous game, I’m progressing. This is showing why he stayed on me. I’m going to be forever grateful for what he’s done for me and the love he’s shown me and the coaching he’s done for me.”
The freshman scored a career-high 20 points, shot 9-for-14, added eight rebounds and six assists and played all but two minutes in a game Michigan State (31-6) controlled rather comfortably. Izzo joked that Henry scored as many points in this game as he had in total all season, adding, “He did a hell of a job.”
That was not quite the way Izzo felt in his team’s first-round win over Bradley, when he became upset about Henry’s effort on a defensive sequence. Izzo screamed so vigorously that point guard Cassius Winston had to get between the two.
It is the 10th time the Spartans have reached the Elite Eight under Izzo. Michigan State took off by dominating the boards in the first half, finishing the game with a 41-34 rebounding advantage over the Tigers (28-7), who had their own coaching situation. Tony Benford was the interim coach after Will Wade was suspended over reports about a recruiting violation.
LSU point guard Tremont Waters had 23 points, but that could not offset the combined effect of Winston’s 17, Gabe Brown’s 15 and Henry’s breakout game.
“I don’t think the attention affected me,” Henry said. “I came here to be coached. I came here to be the best I can be.”
His teammates took the whole episode in stride. As Winston said: “You’ve got to understand Coach. You’ve got to know how much he loves and cares for you. He wouldn’t get on you like that if he didn’t care about you.
“You want to be coached, you want to be pushed. He’s got years and years and years of that working out for the best for a lot of players. He’s been pushing Hennie all year and he’s starting to play his best basketball at the end of the year. I don’t want to say that’s coincidence.”