'This one feels better': Michigan State squashes Minnesota en route to first Sweet 16 in four years
Des Moines, Iowa — It was probably fitting that on Saturday night as Michigan State’s stranglehold on a second-round matchup with Minnesota was starting to slip away, it turned to its star that has been carrying the Spartans all season.
Cassius Winston went Cassius Winston for a one-minute stretch of the second half and turned the NCAA Tournament into a sweet experience once again for the Spartans.
His seven points in 57 seconds turned back a surge from Minnesota as No. 2 Michigan State pulled away for a 70-50 victory over the 10th-seeded Golden Gophers in the East Region at Wells Fargo Arena. The win sends Michigan State (30-6) to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015 where it will face No. 3 LSU on Friday at Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.
“One of the timeouts I told him he's got to take over and like a true All-American did,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He took over and had about as good of a two-minute stretch there as you could, and a nine-point lead went to 16 and we start cruising.
“He had a steal in there with those seven points. He was a one-man wrecking crew and I think he grew another step.”
Winston finished with 13 points and nine assists, a performance that came as his ailing toe was bothering him for much of the game. He shrugged it off, however, and in the process helped the Spartans get out of the first weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2015 when they eventually reached the Final Four.
“I do whatever I can to help our team win,” Winston said. “That’s one of the things they count on me for.”
They’ve been counting on him all season, and for his teammates, it’s becoming ordinary.
“To me it’s nothing special,” senior Kenny Goins said. “That’s Cassius Winston being Cassius Winston. The fact that it’s normal is kind of scary.”
Added sophomore Xavier Tillman, “For me, that's just typical Cassius. That's just what he does. Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute, whenever we need him to just lead vocally he does whatever we need him to do, and that was just another day in the park.”
His play helped Michigan State overcome 22 turnovers, the third time this season the Spartans have given the ball up 20 or more times in a game. Tillman added 14 points while Aaron Henry had nine points and nine rebounds. Goins, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward also scored nine points each.
“Total team effort,” Tillman said. “Everybody was locked in. Everybody wanted this win bad.”
And now Michigan State is in a spot it’s been 14 times now under Izzo, a place the Spartans feel accustomed to, even if it has been a while since they’ve reached the second round of the tournament.
After a first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2016, Michigan State followed with second-round losses to Kansas in 2017 and Syracuse last year.
“This one feels better,” Izzo said. “We were disappointed in '16. We had a real good team and we had a loss to a team that played better, Middle Tennessee, and the next year people said we didn't play well. We had injuries to our bigs and I thought, last year, so many issues.
“But I look at these guys and these guys have won 60 games now in two years. That's a hell of an accomplishment and getting back to the Sweet 16, there's nothing like playing when it stays daylight longer. You come out of those practices now and the sun is still shining. It's the greatest feeling in the world.”
Amir Coffey did his best to keep that from happening as he scored 27 to lead Minnesota (22-14). But the Golden Gophers were short-handed soon after the game started as senior Jordan Murphy lasted only four minutes because of a back injury.
“It's almost fitting with him that he hasn't missed a game his whole career, started every game but 11, still didn't miss because he played today,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “But it almost felt like a heavyweight fighter continuing to fight through it even though he's bruised and beat up. That was him until the end.”
Michigan State could do no wrong early in the game, making nine of it first 10 shots and going 13-for-16 to open a 20-point lead after Ward scored on a layup to give the Spartans a 31-11 lead with six minutes left in the first half.
But the turnovers started to become a problem from there for the Spartans as they gave the ball away 11 times in the first half, leading to 12 points for the Gophers. Michigan State’s only points over the final six minutes of the half came when Henry scored after a Ward miss.
Minnesota took advantage, pulling to within 33-19 by halftime as Isaiah Washington scored five points in the final 5:45 and Coffey finished the half with 12 points for the Gophers.
Almost four minutes into the second half, Minnesota started to chip away at the lead and got the crowd that was pulling heavily for the Gophers to come to their feet.
An 8-0 run that included six points from Coffey, including a thunderous dunk, got Minnesota to within 40-31 and the arena was buzzing. But Winston then hit two mid-range jumpers and a 3-pointer in transition to push back the Minnesota comeback.
“We were just trying to win the weekend and we ended up doing that,” Goins said. “Now we got to go win another weekend.”
For Michigan State, the opportunity alone had them flying high on Saturday.
“Just to get rid of that curse that we haven’t been there in a while,” Tillman said. “So, now it’s kind of like doing something new, doing something fresh.”