East Lansing — Halftime on Tuesday night was a crossroads for Michigan State.
The Spartans had just labored through another uninspiring first half and trailed No. 18 Iowa by six points. Xavier Tillman played less than five minutes because of foul trouble and Cassius Winston had one point.
That’s right. The Big Ten’s best player a year ago, the “straw that stirs the drink,” as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has said many times throughout Winston’s marvelous career, had a single point. He’d missed all three of his shots and turned the ball over twice.
Izzo didn’t tear into his team during the break. If he had, it would have been understandable, even predictable. Instead, he stated it fairly simply.
“I said, ‘If things don't change, we will have a nice little season, win a few games, and call it a day,’” Izzo recalled.
In other words, there would be no shot at a third straight Big Ten title, there’d be no momentum headed to the conference tournament and there’d likely be no deep NCAA Tournament run.
Izzo was addressing the team, but really, he was talking to his best player.
Michigan State needed Winston. The Spartans needed their star to be a star. They needed him to be Cassius Winston.
On Michigan State’s first possession of the second half, Winston curled off a screen and buried a 3-pointer from the wing. It was an early sign that Winston was coming to life, but only after Iowa pushed its lead to 10 did things really start to heat up.
After a Rocket Watts 3-pointer and a free throw from Tillman, Winston did what his team needed. He took the game over.
First it was a triple from the corner. Then came another that hit the front of the rim and the backboard before falling in. On the next trip, Winston raced from end to end and scooped in a running layup. After that, he slid off screens from Tillman and Malik Hall for another 3-pointer from the right wing.
Eleven straight points from Winston.
The Breslin Center was buzzing. Winston hit Aaron Henry for an elbow jumper to tie the game then feathered a pass to an open spot near the basket. Tillman darted in to grab the perfect delivery and lay the ball in the basket, giving Michigan State a 53-51 lead and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“He did what true champions are supposed to do,” Izzo said. “He just did an unbelievable job the second half.”
There was more work to be done for the Spartans, and a 13-3 run in the final minutes helped lock up a 78-70 victory, one that was desperately needed for a team that had won only one of its previous five games that were decided by single digits.
Plenty of players had big nights. Tillman was a defensive star, Watts made a handful of huge shots and Henry was all over the court.
But it was Winston who stood out.
“You know it’s coming, you just don't know when it's coming,” Henry said. “When you see it, it's just like, ‘Damn.’ He just doing his thing and I'm just like, ‘Wow, do your thing. Just keep going.’ He's a special player to watch and I’m happy for him.”
Moments like this haven’t come as often as many would have expected this season for Winston. It’s hard to be critical considering what the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year has endured, losing his brother, Zachary, when the 19-year-old took his own life in November.
It’s been an ongoing process for Winston and his family, one that has no end date.
But for a few moments on Tuesday night, Winston looked like Winston. He had complete control of the game and in the moment when he put his hand to his ear then implored the crowd to turn up the volume, it felt like the Winston of 2019 was breaking through.
“I knew I had to play better to help my team,” Winston said. “I had to take my shots.”
Winston finished with 20 points, 19 coming in the second half. He’s scored more in his career and he’s been on bigger stages, but as Michigan State attempts to gather momentum for one final push, it feels much more possible after what Winston did on Tuesday.
The Spartans (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) now have won two in a row and head to Maryland on Saturday. It’s hardly just any other game. Michigan State is still stinging from the loss at home to the Terrapins less than two weeks ago, and it knows finding some sort of revenge in College Park this weekend would leave it in a position where at least a share of a third straight Big Ten title is possible.
“That'd be amazing,” Winston said. “You know how hard it is to win a Big Ten championship. It's a grind and to come out with three of them is hard to do and I don't think a lot of people have done it.
“It starts with Maryland right now. We'll go in there and play as hard as we can. We felt like we had a good chance at them when we were at home, so we'll go in there with the same mentality and play an even better game. We'll let the chips fall where they may after that.”
Winston is right. The chips will fall where they may. But what Winston and the Spartans did against Iowa on Tuesday was assure their coach that the season would not just be played out. It wouldn’t end with a few wins and they’d head home.
They might not win share of the conference title and the postseason run might be short, but the Spartans will go out fighting with their best player leading the way.
“We still want our season to end with a bang,” Winston said.