Cassius Winston bounces back big-time, carries Michigan State past Nebraska

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Cassius Winston makes a 3-pointer in the first half against Nebraska.

Lincoln, Neb. — Less than a week ago, Tom Izzo didn’t pull any punches with his point guard.

Michigan State had just beaten Penn State, but Cassius Winston didn’t play well. In fact, he was simply bad. Izzo told him as much, saying that was the worst game he’s had at Michigan State.

Winston agreed.

Fast forward four days and Winston offered his response — a career-high 29 points to lead No. 6 Michigan State to a 70-64 victory over Nebraska at a jam-packed Pinnacle Bank Arena. It was the 11th straight win for the Spartans, who have now won a program-record 19 consecutive Big Ten regular-season games.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 70, Nebraska 64

They did so because of Winston.

“I’m really proud of him,” Izzo said. “When you come back … he took (the criticism) and he agreed with it. He didn’t play good on either end of the court (at Penn State) and so what you hope guys realize is their mental approach has to be just as good as their physical approach. I think his mental approach was better and he went over 1,000 points (for his career) and what a game to remember.”

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Winston scored 16 of his points in the first half, helping Michigan State (16-2, 7-0 Big Ten) build a five-point halftime lead despite Nebraska playing solid defense and disrupting the Spartans on a regular basis.

But Winston still found holes in the defense and came up big late in the game with a deep 3-pointer to give the Spartans an eight-point lead with just more than four minutes to play then made five of six free throws in the final minute.

“I felt in control of the game, playing at my pace,” Winston said. “I wanted to get back on track and get back to the level I was playing at. I want to play with the highest standard and to the best of my ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

He’s done that most of the season as the Spartans now get the weekend off before hosting No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Winston got some help as Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for Michigan State while Kenny Goins pulled down 11 rebounds as the Spartans played, once again without junior guards Joshua Langford (ankle) and Kyle Ahrens (back). It led to extended minutes for freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, who each played well.

Nebraska (13-5, 3-4) had won two straight entering the game and led by four in the first half but only led once in the second half, 38-37, with 14:32 left.

James Palmer Jr. scored 24 to lead Nebraska while Isaac Copeland chipped in 13 for the Cornhuskers.

“You have to credit Michigan State. They're a very strong, athletic team that defends,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “There's a reason they're one of the top teams in the country defensively. This is their sixth true road win and they're primed for this moment. It's not like they're an upstart. And Coach Izzo is as good as there is in the game of basketball, college or pro.”

The first half was a back-and-forth battle as the lead changed hands seven times.

The Cornhuskers’ defense was stifling early, forcing Michigan State into nine first-half turnovers. However, Winston was on point from the opening tip, scoring 16, and late in the half, Ward started to find some room in the Nebraska defense. He scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds, two on the offensive end that each led to baskets.

Meanwhile, Nebraska was spreading things around as all five starters scored in the opening half while a pair of free throws from Isaac Copeland with 3:04 to play gave the Huskers a 28-26 lead.

But it was all Michigan State from there as the Spartans scored the final seven points of the half, capped by a three-point play from Winston when he converted on a running layup, was fouled and made the free throw with 12.5 seconds left, giving Michigan State a 33-28 lead at halftime.

The tight battle continued in the second half as each team struggled to find a rhythm. However, after Nebraska tied the score, 44-44, on a pair of Palmer free throws, Michigan State scored the next seven to take its biggest lead to that point, 51-44 with 6:52 to play.

The run included five points from freshman Henry, who hit a 3-pointer then converted on a layup in transition. His points were sandwiched around a Kenny Goins layup on a pass from Ward.

After Nebraska got within three, Ward scored on a hook on the block and Winston buried a deep 3-pointer to put the Spartans up, 56-48, with just more than 4 minutes to play. The Spartans eventually pushed the lead to 12 in the final minutes before putting the game away at the free-throw line, despite a late flurry from the Cornhuskers.

“It was probably one of the bigger wins on the road under the circumstances of those freshmen having to play minutes in a tough environment,” Izzo said. “That place was rocking as loud as I’ve ever heard a place lately, and we found a way to win.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau