WASHINGTON D.C — Gabe Brown couldn't believe his eyes when he stood outside the left wing Friday night.
Brown, a 6 foot, 7 inch freshman guard used off the bench, was stationed beyond the 3-point arc and caught an around-the-horn pass from Kenny Goins. Brown's defender, Emmitt Williams, was stationed in the paint, leaving Michigan State's 6 foot, 7 inch bench guard wide-open.
He had all the time in the world. Swish.
That play transpired at the 15:28 mark in the first half of No. 2 MSU's 80-63 win over third-seeded Louisiana State in the NCAA East Region semifinals at Capital One Arena and set up a career night for Brown. In 16 minutes, Brown scored 15 and went 5-of-7 from the field with four 3s and three rebounds, eclipsing his previous career best of 11 points against Green Bay on Dec. 16.
"For me, as a freshman, it feels really big for me," Brown said, smiling. "Because I had games where I didn’t play, games where I didn’t score the ball or things like that."
Brown, who checked into the game after starter Matt McQuaid picked up his first foul, had 13 points and three 3s in the first half. He entered the game averaging 35.3 percent from deep and according to LSU interim coach Tony Benford, the Tigers (28-7) were more concerned with stopping point guard Cassius Winston and battling with the front court of MSU (31-6) to grab rebounds.
"We knew he's a good player," Benford said. "So sometimes you play the percentages. And he made them tonight. So we have to make -- we made an adjustment but still even when we made the adjustment he hit a couple tough ones."
Brown said each triple seemed to find its way into the basket easier than the one before it and provided a much-needed boost to his confidence. His second 3 came in MSU's next possession to push a 16-7 lead with 14:53 until halftime.
“For him to come in and hit those shots and stay solid on defense and get those big rebounds, that’s really big," McQuaid said. "We’ve always just believed in playing for each other and stepping up when we need each other."
His third came early in the second, just after a 12-0 LSU run made it a 45-41 game with 16:43 left, but his final seemingly put the Tigers away for good at the 10:17 mark to put MSU up 63-48.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo said he saw it rewarding to see Brown's hard work in practice pay off.
"The cool thing about Gabe is he’s been working his butt off," Izzo said. "If you talk to Gabe, he’s been in every single day for months. ... He did a good job and he did even a better job defensively, that’s where he’s been struggling."
Brown, who began the season as one of MSU's last-ditch options at wing, was the fifth player at that position, behind Goins, freshman Aaron Henry — who led MSU with 20 points Friday — and Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens — both of whom suffered season-ending lower body injuries. Since Ahrens sprained his left ankle against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, Brown has appeared in 34 minutes over the last three games.
But it's easy to see why Brown may have been overlooked in the Tigers' game plan.
"It’s just hard to scout," forward Goins said. "I don’t know. He might be our eighth guy on our bench, ninth guy on our bench, something like that. It’s hard to scout that many people."
Despite being used sparsely during the regular season, Brown said he's felt great improvement in areas like shot selection and overall offensive feel. But there have also been times he's felt the opposite.
"I had days where I was doubting myself, days where I was disappointed in myself, days where I didn’t practice as good," Brown said. "I’d get down on myself, but I always had my team and the coaches and everybody to pick me up."
The Spartans will play top-seeded Duke (32-5) on Sunday. With that in mind, Brown said he's going to process things as they happen, instead of looking ahead to the prospects of more regular playing time.
After all, he's got all the time in the world.
"I know it’s a slow grind, a slow process," Brown said. "So I still got things to improve each and every day."