Wojo: Spartans hunt down Duke, chasing something bigger now

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, right, celebrates with teammates Matt McQuaid (20), Nick Ward (44) and Gabe Brown (13) after defeating Duke in an NCAA men's East Region final Sunday.

Washington — After Kenny Goins drilled one of the biggest shots in Spartan history, after another frantic scramble, the ball was back in Cassius Winston’s hands, where it always belongs. He was running and the Blue Devils were chasing and the crowd was shrieking, and one more time, he couldn’t be caught. Not as the final sweaty seconds ticked away, not all night.

The Spartans are stopping for no one, bowing to nothing. They’re sprinting all the way to the Final Four with unbreakable poise and mounting nerve. It could not have happened any more fittingly or dramatically, as Michigan State slayed its longtime nemesis with a captivating performance that instantly ranks among the classics.

The Spartans edged Duke 68-67 Sunday, ousting the top seed with clutch shot after clutch shot. As Winston took the final inbounds pass and raced away from defenders to dribble out the last five seconds, the Spartan fans leaped in jubilation and the bench emptied to mob their tireless leader.

“I thought I was gonna get fouled and I broke away, and I said, oh, nobody’s touching me, we got this,” Winston said in the locker room. “It’s something we dream about, talk about, but to actually have this opportunity? Amazing.”

It almost defies explanation, until you actually watch the Spartans, who are more talented than many realize, tougher than anyone imagined. The Spartans (32-6) are back — not that they ever went far away — back in the national-championship hunt, maybe even the favorite to win it all now. They’ll face Texas Tech next Saturday in Minneapolis, then could face the winner of Virginia-Auburn for the title. 

Wire and desire

From here to there, what a remarkable journey. With every injury, another player emerged. With every challenge, Tom Izzo and his staff uncovered a counter. They talk constantly about being connected, and my goodness, they’re bound by wire and desire, driven by a fiery coach and a fearless on-court leader. Winston played all 40 minutes, scored 20 points, had 10 assists and only one turnover, and added four steals for good measure.

It was that type of defense, relentless and physical, that pushed the Spartans to a level high enough to smite the Devils. Improbable? Not really. But then you look at the numbers and realize how amazing it is.

Izzo was 1-11 against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. He’s now the sweetest 2-11 you’ll ever see.

Goins had missed six of seven 3-point shots in the game, before he found himself wide open with 34 seconds left, the Spartans trailing 66-65. He’s a senior and the only holdover from Michigan State’s last Final Four team in 2015. He’s a streaky shooter, rugged rebounder and a former walk-on, and against star-soaked Duke, he made the shot he wasn’t even supposed to take.

The play called for Winston to draw Duke’s defenders, then kick the ball to Xavier Tillman. Tillman, who was covered, then quickly flipped it to Goins, and naturally, effortlessly, Goins fired it over Zion Williamson, Duke’s celebrated star. When he let it fly, he knew exactly where it was going, through the net, into the books, onto the Final Four.

“As soon as it touched my hands, I knew I was shooting it,” Goins said. “As soon as I let it go, I knew it was good. Teammates and coaches were keeping my confidence up, telling me the next shot is going down.”

He was talking on the floor of Capital One Arena, green and white confetti fluttering all around, tears of joy falling freely from players and coaches. Magic Johnson was there, and he’d given the team some tips before the game. And there’s that connection again, a Michigan State team linked to its past, linked to its coach, linked to each other, now linked forever in history.

Second helping?

For Izzo, it’s his eighth Final Four, and perhaps his most satisfying. He now has a real shot at his second national championship.

“I can't tell you how many times in those huddles they didn't quit, they didn't give in,” Izzo said. “I say we might not be as physically tough as some teams I've had, but I think mentally we might be tougher than any team I've had. This is one of those days I’ll remember as long as I live.”

It left Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils, heavy favorites at the start of the Tournament, crushed. Krzyzewski called Winston “the best guard we’ve played against.” Sitting next to his coach, Williamson spoke softly, his college career likely over after one year, headed to be the top pick in the NBA

“Hats off to them, they’re a great team,” Williamson said. “They played a great game. And Winston, he took over.”

After beating this team, there’s nobody the Spartans can’t beat. They already were talking about unfinished business, two more games ahead, nothing easy. Texas Tech has the nation’s top defense and thrashed Michigan in the Sweet 16. On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 seed Virginia remains formidable.

The Spartans vowed there’d be no intimidation, no fear, no flinching against the Blue Devils, and they showed it. When they fell behind 30-21 as another freshman phenom, RJ Barrett, was firing 3-pointers, Izzo called timeout. No panic, no problem. Winston, as he has all season, sensed the moment, then seized it. He sparked a 15-0 run that gave Michigan State a 36-30 lead early in the second half, and from there, it was back and forth, the game seemingly hanging on every possession.

Tillman was tremendous again, the Spartans’ unsung star with 19 points and nine rebounds. Matt McQuaid was clutch again, the Spartans’ other unsung senior, and it’s time we un-sing the unsung label with these guys. There was McQuaid racing down the floor for one monstrous dunk, and then with eight minutes left and the score tied, driving for a backward, twisting reverse layup that defied gravity.

“I don’t know what got into me,” McQuaid said. “I think the basketball gods were smiling down on me.”

For once, they weren’t smiling down on Duke. The Blue Devils had won their previous two Tournament games on last-second misses by the opposition, and they were every bit as vulnerable as billed. They’re not a great 3-point shooting team and they’re young, and Michigan State’s experience and stamina broke them, forcing 17 turnovers.

“I can talk for a long time about their entire team,” Krzyzewski said of the Spartans. “They have poise. They play defense. They don’t beat themselves.”

Williamson was a 285-pound force, with 24 points and 14 rebounds, but he didn’t dominate Michigan State’s front line of Tillman, Goins and Aaron Henry. Neither team grabbed larger than a four-point lead for the final 16 minutes, a staggering stretch of pressure. Duke led 66-63 with 1:41 left, but there was more from Tillman, more from Goins, and a lot more from Winston.

“That’s exactly how I pictured it this whole year,” Winston said. “I knew we had this in us, I knew we had the capability to do this. I didn’t doubt us one step of the way. It seems like nothing’s been easy for us, everything’s been tough and challenging, and we rise to the challenge.”

One more level and two more games to go. The Spartans had been chasing Duke forever, but in the end, as time expired, it was the other way around. The Spartans are winning with Winston and defense and uncommon spirit, and if Duke couldn’t stop them, I’m not sure anyone can.

Final Four

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 (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)


Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)


Twitter: @bobwojnowski