'Ready for the challenge': Cassius Winston leads MSU into Big Ten final for rematch vs. UM
Chicago — Rest be damned, Michigan State is playing for another championship.
After locking up a share of the Big Ten regular-season title a week ago, a beaten group of Spartans might have been better off getting a few extra days of rest before the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the top-seeded Spartans will play for a chance to win their six Big Ten tournament championship on Sunday when they take on Michigan for the third time this season. Each team is there thanks to their semifinal victories Saturday at the United Center — Michigan State jumped out early to beat Wisconsin, 67-55, while Michigan followed with a 76-49 blowout over Minnesota.
“Just another chance at a championship,” Michigan State guard Cassius Winston said. “That’s what we play for here. That’s what it’s all about at Michigan State. You win these, you get banners, you get plaques, there’s all types of stuff in the gym, so it’s really important here to get those done.”
No. 6 Michigan State (27-6) is 5-1 in the Big Ten championship game. It last won the title in 2016 and has more tournament championships than any other team in the conference. Its only loss came the last time the tournament was played in Chicago when Wisconsin defeated the Spartans, 80-69, in overtime.
This time, the Spartans will be looking to complete the season sweep of the Wolverines while still holding out hope a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament could be available.
All of that trumps who the opponent is — a bitter rival.
“Championships, for me, it’s what I live for,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s just a special thing, you’re doing something that nobody else is doing. So, I’ve always loved the opportunity to play for championships. It gives us another opportunity and we’ll see what happens.
“...If it’s Michigan, it’s a great opportunity. I really mean that, too. Rivalry aside — it’s always gonna mean something — but a championship kind of supersedes rivalries. Would it be sweeter? Maybe.”
Before there was any talk of playing for another title, Michigan State had the task of getting past Wisconsin, a team it beat earlier in the season in Madison. A quick start was the key as Michigan State opened a 17-point lead midway through the opening half.
Cassius Winston scored 21 points and handed out six assists for the Spartans while Kenny Goins scored 13 and grabbed 12 rebounds. Xavier Tillman chipping in 17 points and seven rebounds for the Spartans and Aaron Henry grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds.
“(Starting fast is) big time, especially in these games against good teams,” Goins said. “If you get down at all against a good team, they usually take advantage of it. We’re going to have to do the same thing tomorrow and hopefully, we can sustain that through the entire half now.”
Ethan Happ scored 20 for Wisconsin (23-10), which was just 2-for-19 from 3-point range and went scoreless for 7:14 during the second half as Michigan State pulled away. Kobe King added 13 points for the Badgers, who were 24-for-68 shooting.
“Obviously disappointed in the outcome,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “We could never overcome the start and couldn't get back after they got hot at the beginning, and I thought we did a good job of battling back at the end of the first half.
“We've got to make shots. We had some really good looks. Need to be able to score inside and out, and we weren't consistent enough inside, and obviously really struggled from the perimeter, even though we had some really good looks.”
Michigan State was on fire to open the game, making eight of its first 10 shots while going 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Goins led the way, making his first three triples, the third giving the Spartans an 18-4 lead just six minutes into the game.
Wisconsin chipped away a bit to pull within 20-10, but Michigan State scored the next seven to take its biggest lead of the game to that point, 27-10, with 7:43 to play after Tillman converted a three-point play.
After a slow start shooting, the Badgers started to find a rhythm, making seven of their final 12 shots while Michigan State closed the half 3-for-13. A D’Mitrik Trice 3-pointer with 23 seconds to play pulled Wisconsin to within 35-27, the score going to the break after Tillman missed a dunk in the final seconds.
The second half saw Wisconsin start to pull closer to Michigan State. A three-point play by Khalil Iverson with 10:12 to play cut Michigan State’s lead to six, the closest the game had been since the Spartans led, 8-2, in the opening minutes of the first half.
But a Goins 3-pointer followed by a Henry dish to Tillman for a layup pushed the Spartans’ lead to 54-43 with 6:31 left in the game. The Spartans extended the lead from there, going up 62-47 with 1:44 to play after two Tillman free throws as Michigan State ran the clock out from there at the free-throw line.
“Lot more positives today,” Izzo said. “We gutted it out in the second half. We really did. We showed some grit because that’s a good basketball team. I’m proud of what we did.”
Up next will be the second championship meeting between the rivals. Michigan State beat Michigan in 2014. The only other meeting in the tournament was last year’s Michigan win the semifinals.
“One more day to finish this and we’re all ecstatic to be there but all ready for the challenge,” Goins said. “We’ve come here before and came up short. Some of the older guys know what it’s like, the coaches have been here a bunch of times. This was our time with a few upper classmen and young guys all coming together to stay composed and take over this last game.”