East Lansing — Gabe Brown sat in front of his locker Sunday afternoon at the Breslin Center and just shook his head when he was asked about Cassius Winston.
The Michigan State sophomore was trying to put into words what Winston had just done on the court, pouring in a career-high 32 points while handing out nine assists and controlling the game from start to finish in No. 14 Michigan State’s 87-69 victory over No. 12 Michigan.
“That’s a bad boy,” Brown said. “A bad man, for real.”
A few feet over, Aaron Henry started to break down what Winston does and concluded with what mattered most.
“I’m glad to be on his team,” Henry said.
A few minutes earlier, just before Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Winston, “unbelievable,” first-year Michigan coach Juwan Howard summed it all up.
“He’s just elite level; it’s that simple,” Howard said.
Few doubted that before Michigan State and Michigan tipped off on Sunday afternoon, and virtually no one did by the time it was done.
Winston was 11-for-19 shooting and turned the ball over just twice as Michigan State beat Michigan for the fourth straight time after a season sweep of three games last year.
“It just kind of just happened,” Winston said. “I didn't realize I was hot until like the end of the first half. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not,’ and stuff kind of was happening. I was just playing, making plays. I just played with my rhythm the whole night.”
Winston hit the first shot of the game and had 16 points by halftime as Michigan State (12-3, 4-0 Big Ten) took a 10-point lead at the break. But it was early in the second half when Winston really got the crowd on his feet.
Two 3-pointers in a row gave the Spartans a 58-45 lead with 15 minutes to play, and though Michigan never went away and even pulled within eight late in the game, that sequence signified Winston and the Spartans wouldn’t be denied a fourth consecutive win over their rival.
“He played amazing,” Michigan State freshman Rocket Watts said. “My favorite play was when he hit those back-to-back 3s and he just threw up the money sign. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’”
As good as Winston was, he needed help.
That game from junior big man Xavier Tillman, scored 20 and pulled down 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season.
“We've just been taking everything really seriously,” Tillman said. “We haven't taken any opponent lightly. It's mainly because of how we started, we started I think 7-3, so we've had a lot of ground to make up. Every time we're on the court, everyone's playing aggressive.”
That aggression was needed on Sunday as every big shot from the Spartans was answered by the Wolverines. Time and time again, just as it looked like Michigan State was about to put the game away, Michigan responded.
By the end, though, with Isaiah Livers on the bench with a groin injury, the Wolverines (10-4, 1-2) didn’t have the firepower.
Jon Teske scored 15 before fouling out with 3:40 to play while Zavier Simpson scored 14 and had eight assists for the Wolverines. Brandon Johns Jr. scored 12 and Franz Wagner chipped in 10 as Michigan was 5-for-23 from 3-point range with Livers out.
“In this game you just had two heavyweights going at one another and unfortunately someone has to lose,” Howard said. “But we get a chance to play them again in our building, and we look forward to it when the time comes.”
Winston and Tillman combined to spark Michigan State early in the game as they scored 11 of the Spartans’ first 15 points as Michigan State opened a 15-8 lead. But Michigan’s size was a big factor as the Wolverines scored 22 points in the paint in the first half with Teske leading the way with 11 while Austin Davis chipped in seven points off the bench.
A back-and-forth battle for most of the first half, Michigan State started to pull away late in the half. A 3-pointer from Marcus Bingham gave the Spartans a 44-31 lead with 1:34 before halftime, but Teske answered with the Wolverines’ second triple of the half. A drive by Winston to close the half missed the mark as Michigan State headed to the locker room with a 44-34 lead.
It wasn’t long before Winston started to take control in the second half. After his layup put Michigan State ahead, 52-40, Winston then nailed back-to-back 3-pointers, though one was answered by Simpson.
“We call them kill shots,” Winston said. “I don’t know how to explain it. You kind of hear the crowd getting louder and the people start to stand. That’s when you shoot the kill shot and you know the timeout is coming. It’s a momentum. … You gotta search for those because those are the ones that kind of kill a team.”
Michigan State kept pouring it on as Winston found Ahrens for a corner jumper, hit a pull up jumper then split a pair of free throws. After freshman Rocket Watts scored on a drive to the hoop, the Spartans were up, 67-51, with just less than 12 minutes to play.
The Wolverines responded with a 7-0 run to pull within 67-58 with 10:25 left in the game, but the Spartans pulled away over the last 10 minutes of the game to lock up the victory and cement Winston as the dominant player in the rivalry with the rematch in Ann Arbor set for Feb. 8.
“You knew he was going to get a lot of attention today,” Izzo said of Winston, “and it was one of the greater performances that this building has seen. I take my hat off to him, I really do… until tomorrow, then it is back to dog eat dog.”