MSU legend Mateen Cleaves speaks about Cassius Winston after Winston broke Cleaves MSU career assists record during the victory over Wisconsin. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Cassius Winston struggled again on Friday night, but his final line hardly mattered.
No. 15 Michigan State didn’t need the senior guard to score and they didn’t rely too heavily on the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year to distribute the ball either.
The Spartans got plenty from the supporting cast, certainly enough to jump out to a big lead before cruising over the final minutes to a 67-55 victory over Wisconsin at the Breslin Center.
None of it kept Winston from being the star of the night, though, as his lob pass to Xavier Tillman for a dunk in the second half brought the house down, giving Winston the 817th assist of his career, breaking the Big Ten and program record established by former Spartan Mateen Cleaves, who was in the crowd.
“Cash, congratulations,” Cleaves said after the game, handing Winston a commemorative ball. “Let’s make it a special year.”
It was an odd night considering Winston struggled for the second straight game. His four assists were the second-fewest he’s had this season and his 3-for-12 shooting night came on the heels of Sunday’s blowout loss at Purdue when he was 4-for-13 and turned the ball over nine times.
However, Winston got plenty of help as Tillman scored 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had four assists for the Spartans (14-4, 6-1 Big Ten). Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown each added 13 points while Rocket Watts added 11 for Michigan State.
Still, it was Winston’s night.
“A special night,” Winston said. “My family was there and the assist record as there for 20 years, so that's a lot of assists. It really is a blessing to be in this in this position right now.
“(To have Mateen here) is huge, like I said, for it to stay in the family and for him to be one of my biggest supporters. A lot of times in these situations you probably want that forever, but it was never anything like that. He was rooting for me the whole time, pushing for me to go get it and that's all love.”
Cleaves capped his career by delivering Michigan State the 2000 national championship. The only thing left for Winston is to do the same thing.
“It was great for me because I guess if you look at the four years of Mo, you look at these four years with cash, they've been some of the greatest seasons of Michigan State history and some of my greatest seasons,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “When you get to be successful in football, you got to have a good quarterback, and I had two of the greatest ones standing out there. What a thrill for me to be able to say that I recruited both, coached both and they carried me.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the win over Wisconsin and Cassius Winston becoming the Big Ten's all-time leader in assists. The Detroit News
The victory kept Michigan State in first place in the conference and provided its eighth consecutive victory over Wisconsin.
Junior Nate Reuvers scored 19 to lead Wisconsin (11-7, 4-3), which had won six of seven entering the game and is the only Big Ten team with two road victories. Sophomore Kobe King added 10 points for the Badgers.
“Let's go to the cut to the chase,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Michigan State is really good. So whether they won at Purdue or lost to Purdue, we knew we were coming in to play a really good team. So whether that's extra motivation on their part, that's for them to answer. But regardless, we were well aware of what type of team we're going to see.”
Michigan State controlled the game in first half, shooting 53.8 percent from the field (14-for-26) while making 3-of-7 from 3-point range. On the other end, the defense was just as effective as Wisconsin made only one of its first 10 shots and finished the half 9-for-31 and just 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
Only seven offensive rebounds and eight second-chance points for the Badgers kept the game from getting truly out of hand.
Brown was perfect from the field in the opening half, going 4-for-4 and scoring 11 points while draining a pair of 3s. Henry was also effective with nine points and three assists while Tillman scored nine and had four rebounds.
Michigan State scored the first four points of the second half to extend its lead to 39-20, but Wisconsin quickly came to life as Reuvers scored eight straight, D’Mitrik Trice hit jumper and Reuvers nailed another triple to push the Badgers’ run to 13-0 cut the deficit to 39-33 with 15:18 minutes to play.
Michigan State's Cassius Winston became the Big Ten and MSU all-time leader in assists in the victory over Wisconsin. The Detroit News
The Spartans responded, however, by getting a three-point play from freshman Malik Hall before capping an 11-2 run on a 3-pointer from Watts to push the advantage back to 50-35 with 11:47 left in the game.
Watts got going at that point, hitting three straight 3-pointers as Michigan State extended the lead to 63-39 after Brown dunked a lob pass from Foster Loyer as the crowd erupted with 7:40 to play. Wisconsin had one final run over the last few minutes, but the game was out of hand at that point
“I felt good about the win,” Izzo said. “I felt good about the way we played at times. I was disappointed in a couple of those five-minute stretches where they went on runs and we just didn't seem to do what we needed to do. But we did beat a quality team who was playing some of its best basketball, and they were the hottest team in the league.”
After the quick stop at home, Michigan State is back on the road next week with a trip to Indiana on Thursday followed with a visit to Minnesota on Jan. 26.
It will be the Spartans’ first chance to redeem themselves away from home since last weekend’s 29-point loss at Purdue. It was the worst defeat since losing by 29 to Michigan in 2017 and with road victories at a premium in the Big Ten race, it will be vital for Michigan State to rebound away from home.