Michigan State guard Cassius Winston talks about beating Duke to reach the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Washington — It was almost too much for Cassius Winston to believe.
With four seconds on the clock, the Michigan State guard took an inbounds pass from Xavier Tillman and started racing up the court. He was counting on getting fouled, but the contact never came.
The Spartans star swerved across the court, took a turn back and then flipped the ball in the air as the horn sounded at Capital One Arena.
Michigan State 68. Duke 67.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Winston said.
It was just minutes after No. 2 Michigan State had beaten No. 1 overall seed Duke in the East Region final to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2015. The confetti was still trickling down on Winston, who sported had his Final Four hat flipped backward and a piece of the net tied to the hat.
“The clock hit zero and we were winning,” Winston continued. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow. We just won. We’re going to the Final Four. It was crazy.”
Crazy might not do justice to describe a game that was like two heavyweight champions going toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring. The swings of emotions over the 40 minutes of play were enough to last 10 games, let alone one.
But even as the Blue Devils featured a lineup of future lottery picks, led by the unbelievable Zion Williamson, the Spartans never wavered, showing the resolve they have all season.
That resolve allowed them to erase a nine-point deficit late in the first half and then kept them from wilting with the game on the line.
And when Kenny Goins — the former walk-on — sent a 3-pointer that splashed through the net with 34 seconds to play to give Michigan State a 68-66 lead, it served as the fitting end to one of the more remarkable NCAA Tournament games in Michigan State history.
“As soon as I let it go,” Goins said when he was asked if he knew the shot was going in. “I had the confidence.”
Michigan State's Kenny Goins talks about hitting the winning shot to beat Duke and reach Final Four. The Detroit News
Michigan State had more work to do. It needed a stop and got one — sort of. Duke’s RJ Barrett got in the lane and was fouled with 5.2 seconds on the clock. But he missed the first free throw and made the second, even though he was trying to miss.
Winston got fouled quickly on the inbound, then took the final pass from Tillman to run out the clock.
“We were a faster team,” Winston said. “We maybe were a smarter team tonight. We executed our game plan in the best way. Like I said, they were a good team, too. It was a battle the whole night, and at the end we made some winning plays. That's what it's all about at this point of the year.”
The win meant a lot to Michigan State.
First, it sent the Spartans (32-6) to the Final Four where they will face Texas Tech in the late game Saturday in Minneapolis following Auburn vs. Virginia. It is the eighth Final Four for coach Tom Izzo and the 10th for the program.
Secondly, it helped Izzo beat Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for just the second time in 13 games. Both victories have come in the NCAA Tournament, the last in the Sweet 16 in 2005.
MSU coach Tom Izzo talks about the win over Duke to reach the Final Four. The Detroit News
“I put a lot of focus on the players, not about me, but the record is the players and me,” Izzo said. “Listen, there's a lot of teams that I've had a lot of success against, our program, our teams, and there's some that I haven't. And there's a reason. They've been good.
“And so 2-11 doesn't make me sleep any better. Probably at the end of the year, but I'm going to sleep better tonight because that second win, that 50 percent of the wins I had sends us to the Final Four. And I guess in my own way that first one I had sent us to a Final Four, too.”
Michigan State is heading to the Final Four, in large part, because of the play of Winston.
The junior guard has been the Spartans’ star all year, and he was again on Sunday, scoring 20 points and handing out 10 assists while Xavier Tillman had 19 points and nine rebounds, including four assists, the last coming when he found Goins for the decisive 3-pointer.
Goins finished with 10 points and nine rebounds and made just two 3-pointers, both in the second half.
“I think it goes to the testament to our entire team, our maturity and our experience because we've been through battles like this before and we've lost a couple like this too,” Goins said. “Just learning through experiences like that. And even past years to take it into this game and make the winning plays at the end.”
The Spartans overcame a Duke team led by Williamson, who scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Blue Devils (32-6). Barrett added 21 points for the Blue Devils.
“A lot is obviously going through our mind right now,” Williamson said. “I’m very upset, obviously, because we wanted to go to the Final Four. But congrats to Michigan State. They deserve it. They played a hell of a game.”
The first half gave a quick indication this matchup was everything it was built up to be as each team came out swinging, both landing haymakers at different points of the half.
MSU's Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, Aaron Henry and Matt McQuaid talk about beating Duke to reach the Final Four. The Detroit News
Michigan State was the aggressor to open the game, swiping the ball and getting a dunk from Goins in the opening seconds and building a 14-7 lead over the first seven minutes. However, Duke started ratcheting up the defensive intensity and started to chip away.
After Michigan State went up, 16-9, on an offensive rebound and put-back with 12:16 to play, the Blue Devils started to counterpunch as Barrett scored seven straight points and Duke nailed a pair of 3-pointers as part of a 21-5 surge. The run ended with 12 straight points from the Blue Devils as Barrett hit his second triple to give Duke a 30-21 lead with 5:22 left in the half.
It forced a Michigan State timeout that apparently was all the Spartans needed to reset things.
Winston scored the next four points before a Tillman three was followed by another Winston jumper. Winston then dished to Tillman in transition after a steal and capped off Michigan State’s 13-0 run with a running layup with four seconds left in the half.
The run gave Michigan State a 34-30 lead heading to the locker room as Duke missed its final five shots and committed 10 first-half turnovers. It finished the game with 17 turnovers.
“For us to on a 13-0 run against a team like that when we were down,” Izzo said. “And call a timeout, which I don’t call many timeouts, but I thought it was big. Cash had a lot to do with it and the defense picked up.”
The teams continued the back and forth as the second half opened. Michigan State opened a 41-35 lead, but Williamson scored the first 10 points of the half for the Blue Devils, who scored seven straight to take a 42-41 lead before Ward hit a jump-hook to put Michigan State back in front with 15:59 to play.
After a Williamson 3-pointer gave Duke a 52-48 lead, Winston answered with his own to get Michigan State within one with 11:12 to play then fed to Tillman for a dunk. Duke retook the lead and pushed it to 56-53 on a Javin DeLaurier put-back but Goins then nailed a 3-pointer and Matt McQuaid scored on a drive to the hoop to take a 58-56 lead with 8:15 left in the game.
Williamson tied it on a take to the rim over Tillman then blocked a Goins 3-pointer. Barrett split a pair of free throws to put Duke up one, but Winston hit a runner then fed Tillman for a dunk in transition. Tillman was fouled and hit the free throw to give the Spartans a 63-59 lead with 4:07 left.
DeLaurier then came up with a loose ball and scored to pull Duke within two and after a Michigan State turnover and later went up one on a Barrett 3-pointer with 2:28 to play and extended the lead to 66-63 on a Williamson drive.
Michigan State answered with a lob to Tillman followed by the triple from Goins with 34.1 seconds to play. Barrett had a chance to tie the game but missed the first of two free throws. Michigan State grabbed the rebound then after a foul got the ball to Winston who ran out the clock.
And now the Spartans are running to Minneapolis, eager to reach the heights of those that have come before them.
“We hope to do the same thing, you know what I'm saying?” Winston said, referencing the fact Magic Johnson was at the game and spoke to the team before tip-off. “We hope to leave our mark. And one day we're going to come back and tell the young guys, this is what it takes to get to this point now that we've got there.”
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-8), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)