'We were just locked in': Michigan State savors redemption with win over Michigan
Ann Arbor — As the clock spun down toward :00.0 at Crisler Center on Sunday, Xavier Tillman pulled his shirt out of his shorts and looked to the rafters with a smile.
Cassius Winston dribbled out the clock near the Michigan State bench — he’d already had a late-game embrace with coach Tom Izzo.
The feeling, at that very moment was of relief. Relief for a team that had repeatedly been told it didn’t have enough to go on the road and knock off its rival.
By late Sunday evening, the 10th-ranked Spartans had proven everyone wrong by earning a 77-70 victory over No. 7 Michigan to take over first place by themselves in the Big Ten with just three games left in the regular season. It was the first at Crisler Center since 2016 but it also ended a three-game skid against the Wolverines, accentuated by two losses last season — at home and in the Big Ten tournament.
“We had a redemption-type mindset,” Tillman said, “a redemption feel. Like we knew what happened last year, even the freshmen. They didn’t get it as much but the vets, we knew what happened last year and we knew how we felt after last year’s games, so we were just locked in.”
Locked in is one thing, but to get the victory with two of the team’s most productive players sitting on the bench — Nick Ward with his left hand in a brace and Joshua Langford wheeling around on a scooter to protect his injured left foot — is saying something else.
The margin for error has disappeared for the Spartans (23-5, 14-3 Big Ten), something that is eased by the fact they have Cassius Winston, who might have locked up Big Ten Player of the Year honors by scoring 27 points and handing out eight assists.
It was the sort of performance that has become the norm for the junior guard this season but was especially important after Michigan’s Zavier Simpson got the best of Winston in last season’s matchups.
This time around, Winston held up his end of the bargain.
“When it’s all said and done, probably the guy that has been scrutinized the most by me and you — Cassius Winston — was unbelievable,” Izzo said. “We just kind of kept the ball in his hands and that didn’t mean he was getting all the shots. He made other players better, made some great passes inside, made some great passes outside. He played defense the way we wanted it played.
“I though Cassius did an unbelievable job and deserves a lot of credit.”
He had some help as Kenny Goins scored 16 — 13 in the first half — and grabbed 11 rebounds. Xavier Tillman added 14 points while Matt McQuaid scored 13, including a critical baseline jumper in the final minutes.
It was the sort of performance Michigan State needed — something from everyone.
“I did (sense it coming), and the reason is the focus on what we were gonna do,” Izzo said. “It was kinda like one of those unique moments. We had early staff meetings and just did it differently.
“Dialed in would be a good word. I felt like McQuaid and Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins, they took over some leadership and that’s the cool part of it.”
As well as Michigan State played, the Wolverines nearly pulled away with an early second-half surge, one the Spartans answered. And with 8:22 to play and Michigan State up just one, it used a 13-5 run over the next six minutes to push the lead to nine and effectively put the game away.
The Wolverines (24-4, 13-4) had a late flurry of threes that forced Michigan State to hit its free throws, but they never got within one possession.
“For about 30 minutes it was a tremendous basketball game, great atmosphere,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Michigan State had a tremendous game plan and just played better than us. They were much better than us in just about everything — offense, defense, got to foul line more. First half was huge where we allowed five 3s and second half was much better defense by us, but we're going to have to play better than that.
“They made us play poorly and give them all the credit in the world. We're a pretty good team and we weren't the better team today. They were good. They were hungry, and they came and got it done. A tough loss but we just move on.”
Simpson led Michigan with 19 points in 40 minutes of action while Ignas Brazdeikis added 16 points and nine rebounds, Jordan Poole scored 15 and Jon Teske had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The teams will get another shot at each other in just less than two weeks as Michigan State hosts Michigan on March 9, the final day of the regular season. The Big Ten title might be up for grabs then, though Purdue will have a say as well.
Until then, the Spartans will be more than happy to bask in the glow of victory.
“Under the circumstances I think this is the biggest win,” Izzo said. “Yeah. I really do. … This, to me, was one of the great team efforts.”
And for guys like Goins, who in his fifth season at Michigan State has seen all the ups and downs in the series, it will be one to remember.
“Pure happiness,” Goins said when asked to describe his emotions. “This was one of my goals at the beginning of the season and to accomplish it now feels great.”