– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
WASHINGTON — Though it is more than safe to assume Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston possesses a competitive drive the size of all of the Great Lakes combined, there did happen to be one time during Sunday’s contest in which he was not willing to take the challenge of staring down the top team in the country head on.
After taking an inbounds pass near midcourt from teammate Xavier Tillman, Winston went on a zig-zagging run with the basketball, avoiding one pursuing Duke defender after another while swiveling and contorting his hips from one side of the court to the opposite side. That mad dash, which lasted 4.7 seconds, was immediately followed by the piercing sound of the final buzzer…and a long-awaited trip for the Spartans to the Final Four.
For the rest of the 39 minutes, 55 seconds and three tenths of playing time, Winston, the smallest player on the court for every single second of game time that elapsed, played the biggest role in the Spartans’ 68-67 victory over the top-seeded Blue Devils, from almost singlehandedly leading State out of a perilous nine-point deficit late in the first half to, literally, running out the clock to send his head coach, Tom Izzo, to the national semifinals for an eighth time.
“At the end, we made some winning plays,” said Winston, named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player after his 20-point, 10-assist performance against Duke. “That’s what it’s all about at this point of the year.”
In the presence of former Michigan State backcourt legends and NCAA champions Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, who were in the stands at Capital One Arena watching their alma mater, Winston, named the Big Ten Player of the Year after leading the Spartans to conference regular-season and tournament titles, continued to make winning play after winning play, capped off by his last-second mad dash on the way to Minneapolis, site of this year’s Final Four. Just one minute prior, Winston chalked up his 10th assist on a lob pass to Tillman, whose layup cut the Spartans’ deficit to 66-65 with 1:17 remaining.
After a defensive stop and a Michigan State timeout, Winston played a massive role in the game-winning basket, though he did not score nor record an assist on the play; the 6-foot-1 Winston, after passing the ball to Tillman on the right elbow, set a perfect down screen on the man-mountain phenomenon himself, 6-foot-7, 285-pound Zion Williamson, a pick that freed Kenny Goins to pop out to the perimeter to take a pass from Tillman and take — and swish through — a three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining to give Michigan State a 68-66 advantage, the last of the game’s 16 lead changes.
The praise for Winston’s grace under the hottest NCAA Tournament crucible was effusive, though none of the words were as doting as those from the head coach of the team Winston had just vanquished.
“All these Elite Eight games, I thought Winston was a difference-maker,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was 11-1 in head-to-head match-ups with Tom Izzo-led Michigan State teams until today. “Whenever we did get a three-, four-point lead or it was close, it was close all the time. But he made big plays, either scoring or assisting. He’s the best guard we’ve played against. Ten assists and one turnover.
“[Winston] had as good a performance as any player has had against us,” Krzyzewski continued.
For important as Winston’s late-game heroics were, however, Michigan State would not have been anywhere near in position to clinch its first Final Four appearance since 2015 without the poise he showed after the Blue Devils went on a 21-5 run which found the Spartans down 30-21 and in danger of being blown out of the arena filled mostly with blue-clad Duke supporters.
What immediately followed was a half-ending 13-0 run for Michigan State, remarkable enough without needing to mention that Winston, statistically, had a hand in all six made baskets during that stretch with four made field goals and two assists. His back-to-back baskets in the paint, where he relentlessly entered time and again despite the hounding perimeter defense of Duke point guard Tre Jones, started the run while his assist on Tillman’s three-pointer brought the Spartans within 30-28. Winston tied the game with a jumper in transition, then assisted on another Tillman layup before coming up with a steal and making another shot in the lane to officially wrest momentum back from the Blue Devils.
“I’m telling you, the mental toughness, even when we were down 30-21, there was no panic in the huddle,” said Izzo, who won his only national title back in 2000. “We just said, we didn’t do some things right. We quit rebounding and getting the ball inside. We turned it around. And Cash (Winston) has a lot to do with it. He stirs the drink in a lot of different ways. But tonight he had a couple steals. If he starts playing defense, I’m going to start to get scared. He did a great job in a lot of ways.”
It is almost time to be absolutely terrified, Tom, because Winston was indeed the defensive catalyst as well, coming up a career-high-tying four steals against the Blue Devils. Those pilfers were four of the 17 turnovers the Spartans forced on Sunday, leading to a massive 24 points off of Duke’s giveaways for Michigan State. Just as impressive as his 10 assists on offense and the turnovers he created defensively was the number of times Winston gave away the ball: one.
Michigan State committed just seven turnovers on Sunday, one shy of tying a season-low in that category.
“I describe [Winston] as unbelievable, with the way he’s played and everything he’s been through as a player,” said Michigan State freshman and fellow starter Aaron Henry in awe. “He’s playing his best basketball and I don’t know if there’s a better point guard than him in the country, and I’m glad I’m his teammate.”
In a game that had his fingerprints all over, it was fitting that the ball ended up in Winston’s hands at the very end of the contest, albeit his vision of exactly how the game would end while he possessed the ball went completely different than how it actually turned out.
“It was shocking. I knew I was going to get fouled. I was preparing my mind to knock down some free throws and stuff,” Winston said. “But I got the ball and got away. And I was like, I’m like about to dribble it out, and this is really happening. It was crazy. It was a crazy moment.”
It ended up being the only moment Winston ran away from the challenge of Duke. But after dominating in almost all aspects of today’s Elite Eight game against future NBA stars while playing in front of enshrined NBA Hall of Famers, it was a well-deserved retreat for Winston, one that takes Michigan State one step closer to winning a title almost two decades in the making.