Nolan Bianchi with three quick takeaways from Michigan's 68-67 win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament East Region final Sunday.
Man, can those Spartans take a punch, or what? That shouldn't come as a particular surprise, given the way that Michigan State responded to adversity throughout the previous three rounds of this year's tournament, but two specific counterpunches by the Spartans on the No. 1 team in the tournament were the difference between a trip to the Final Four and watching it from East Lansing.
Michigan State went 2:50 without a bucket late in the second half, opening the door for a 7-0 Duke run that put the Blue Devils up 3 with 1:41 to go. The Spartans responded with poise, as a Kenny Goins 3-pointer with 34 seconds left wound up being the difference.
There was also the Spartans' 13-0 run to close the first half after going down by 9 on a 21-5 run. Of course, when Michigan State needed a spark, it was Cassius Winston, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, leading the way. Duke's switching on the defensive end stymied Michigan State's fluidity for several minutes and the junior point guard took matters into his own hands, drilling the lane over and over again until he broke the drought with an and-1 layup that gave the Spartans some momentum.
Somebody to lean on
Junior forward Nick Ward appeared to have aggravated his hand injury in the second half of Michigan State's win over LSU on Friday, and was shaky at times matching up against the powerful Zion Williamson inside.
The Spartans needed a hero in the paint on both ends of the floor, and Xavier Tillman rose to the occasion. The sophomore big man tied a career-high 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds. But what won't show up on the stat sheet? His explosiveness. The play that most comes to mind is when Tillman neutralized Willliamson on a pass inside — in the midst of a dominant half for the Duke star — allowing Winston to head the other way with things before eventually kicking the ball back to Tillman for a posterizing and-1 dunk on Duke forward Javin DeLaurier with 4:07 left.
Turning the tide
All things considered, this game was about as close as it gets. Michigan State shot 43 percent from the field compared to Duke's mark of 46 percent, and just a 1-percent difference separated the teams' 3-point shooting. Duke had a 9-rebound advantage on the boards, but boasted just a 4-point advantage in second-chance points, regardless. Pretty much a wash.
The most notable advantage for the Spartans was their ability to force 17 turnovers, which led to 24 points. But it wasn't just quantity that gave the Spartans an edge — it was also about timing.
Duke turned it over four times before the first break in the action, allowing Michigan State to jump out to an 8-4 lead. And then they committed four more at the end of the half, when Michigan State was fighting to get back in a game that looked like it could be slipping away.