Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. on MSU's win over UConn. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Portland, Ore. — Cassius Winston was feeling it on Friday night.
The Michigan State sophomore was hitting 3-pointers, driving to the hoop, making step-back jumpers and feeding his teammates.
For an eight-minute stretch, he was not only the best player on the floor, he looked like one of the best players in the country.
“When he dominates like that, that shows he’s the top guard in the nation,” Miles Bridges said.
Maybe it’s an overstatement. Maybe it’s just a teammate and a longtime friend amazed by what he saw. But as Winston was busy putting on a one-man show in No. 4 Michigan State’s 77-57 victory over Connecticut in the semifinals of the PK80 Invitational at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, there was little doubt where his performance stood according to his coach.
“Cassius played the best game of his career here,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. ‘I thought he played within himself. … Cassius was really good offensively and that has happened a lot of times in his career. But I think the difference is he’s getting better defensively.”
Winston finished with a career-high 28 points while handing out five assists and not committing a turnover. He scored 23 in the second half and was 10-for-11 shooting in the final 20 minutes. He scored 18 of the team’s final 26 points and he assisted on a couple more buckets down the stretch.
It helped the Spartans' turn a tight game into a blowout.
“It’s crazy,” Winston said. “There’s nothing like that. It felt like everything you throw up can go in and everything was in rhythm and the ball felt good in my hands and I was just making plays.
“Most definitely, that was the best I’ve felt in a little while, being out there with that confidence, things were falling, everything was happening and I felt really good out there.”
It felt good enough to erase another sluggish offensive start for the Spartans (4-1), who advance to take on No. 9 North Carolina at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday in the championship game of the Victory Bracket.
Tom Izzo on Michigan State's win over UConn Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Michigan State shot just 32.4 percent in the first half but finished at 48.5 percent while it had just eight turnovers and outrebounded the Huskies, 38-32. Jaren Jackson Jr. added 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans while Nick Ward added 11 points and nine rebounds.
“We played better in the second half and we played better defensively than we did offensively,” Izzo said. “It was a little difficult moving Miles back in when he hasn’t practiced, but we’re not getting the ball into Nick like we should and the wings didn’t play well tonight. Yet, we defensively we did an incredible job.
“The negatives are, I don’t think we’re playing well offensively and that’s disappointing. We’re not executing like we have been executing and if we don’t do that Sunday we’ll be going home with a loss.”
Jalen Adams scored 22 for Connecticut (4-1) while Terry Larrier scored 18 and Alterique Gilbert chipped in 10 points.
It was the second straight sloppy start as Michigan State made just one of its first eight shots and was 4-for-17 before the things started to fall. Connecticut had opened an 18-12 lead after two straight 3-pointers from Adams, but the Spartans responded with a 14-3 run to take a 26-21 lead with just more than five minutes to play in the first half.
It started with a 3-pointer from Winston, who followed that with a drive to the basket for a nifty layup. Jackson then hit a 3-pointer as Ward added a pair of layups with Joshua Langford chipping in a bucket.
The Huskies answered by outscoring the Spartans 6-2 to close the half as Michigan State took a 28-27 lead into the locker room.
Bridges did not start but entered the game with 16:08 to play in the first half. He played five minutes in the opening half and scored two points while grabbing three rebounds and handing out an assist. Bridges, who missed the DePaul game on Thursday because of a sprained left ankle, finished with six points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
Michigan State scored the first six points of the second half and eventually pushed the lead to 10 thanks to a 3-pointer from Winston and a jumper from Bridges. Connecticut answered with five straight before Jackson scored on a drive to put the Spartans ahead, 47-40, with just more than 12 minutes to play.
Not long after was when Winston started to take control and helped the Spartans put the game away.
“Amazing,” Jackson said of Winston’s effort. “He was playing like he was at Rucker Park. He was out there just dancing on dudes. But I see him play like that all the time. I’ve seen him do that countless times so I wasn’t that surprised and I was just happy for him.”