'They ain't forgetting us': Michigan State clobbers Ohio State, wins third straight Big Ten title
East Lansing — Cassius Winston wasn’t about to lose his last game at the Breslin Center.
Not after what Michigan State had been through this season. Not after what he'd been through.
Xavier Tillman wasn't going to let it happen, either. The same went for Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry and the rest of the Spartans who endured more than their share of off-court struggles this season. They brushed off four losses in five games in mid-February to close the season by winning five straight and grab a share of their third straight Big Ten championship.
No. 16 Michigan State capped that run on Sunday with an 80-69 victory over No. 19 Ohio State to share the title with Wisconsin and Maryland.
"This is the third year in a row we were playing here for a championship," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on the court as the Spartans celebrated Senior Day. "There is nothing in the entire world I like more than hanging banners. These are memory makers, footprints in the sand.
"Someday this building will crumble but those banners will move to another building and they ain't forgetting us. I’ll make sure of that."
Winston scored 27 points and handed out six assists while getting plenty of help from his teammates. Freshman Rocket Watts scored 19 while Xavier Tillman added 15 points and nine rebounds with Aaron Henry adding 12 points for the Spartans.
It was a bittersweet day for the Spartans, namely for Winston.
The Michigan State star has played the entire season battling the emotional toll of coping with the death of his brother, Zachary, who took his own life in November. It’s been a cloud that has hung over Winston and the Spartans all season.
But over the last few weeks, there have been breaks in those clouds. As Winston has started to get rolling, so, too, have Watts and Henry. With Tillman the steadying force all season, things started clicking as Michigan State went on a remarkable run to end the season, beating four straight ranked teams, two of those victories coming on the road.
“With all we’ve been through as a team and me, myself, has been through this year,” said Winston, who has been a part of three conference championship teams. “You couldn't really envision it (winning the Big Ten). You couldn’t picture this one. All the others you kind of knew at the end of the year we were gonna have a chance to play for a championship. This year there was a moment where we were just trying to finish the year off strong. But we took care of our end and things started happening in our favor.
“We had a chance to win a championship and we took advantage of it, so this year was kind of sweeter. All the cards were against us.”
Tillman admitted the same thing Winston did, saying things didn’t look good a few weeks ago.
“To be able to do the things that we did this year,” Tillman said, “this comeback, it's kind of crazy.”
Michigan State (22-9, 14-6 Big Ten) now heads to next week’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis as the No. 2 seed. The Spartans will begin play at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with the opponent still to be determined.
Before that, though, they had to take care of business against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State (22-10, 11-9) had been on a roll, too, winners of four in a row. Duane Washington scored 16 for Ohio State while C.J. Walker scored 14, E.J. Liddell added 12 and Luther Muhammad had 10 for the Buckeyes.
“Give Michigan State credit,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Congratulations to them obviously for sharing part of the Big Ten title. We had some really good moments, and had some good fight to us. I just didn't think overall, we were able to sustain enough of a defensive presence. So give credit to them for that.”
Michigan State had all the momentum to open the game. After Ohio State scored seven points in a row to take a 7-4 lead, the Spartans responded with a 12-0 run that included eight straight points from Watts. The freshman guard hit a short jumper from the baseline on a feed from Winston and then nailed two straight 3-pointers, the second banking in, to give Michigan State a 16-7 lead.
The advantage was extended to 21-10 when Winston made three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-pointer from the corner. Ohio State scored the next five before Watts banked in another 3. Three minutes later, Winston hit a deep 3-pointer and Tillman converted on a jump-hook to give the Spartans their biggest lead of the half, 31-19, with 6:21 left before halftime.
Ohio State began to chip away at that point, pulling within four points at 32-28 with 3:27 left in the half. It went back and forth from there before Tillman hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to give Michigan State a 38-32 lead at halftime.
The Buckeyes were in control to open the second half, scoring eight seconds in and eventually tying the game at 42 on a layup from Andre Wesson. Ohio State couldn’t pull ahead though, despite several chances and Michigan State took advantage as Winston scored five in a row followed by four straight from Henry to push the lead to 53-46.
A 9-2 run after an Ohio State triple gave Michigan State a 62-51 lead with 9:15 to play, but Washington buried a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to make it 62-54 with 8:36 left in the game.
However, it didn’t slow the Spartans, who continued to pull away down the stretch.
Tillman dunked on a feed from Malik Hall before Henry got two straight steals, taking one the length of the floor for a layup then hitting a pair of free throws after the second to give Michigan State a 70-56 lead with 5:46 to play.
Michigan State cruised from there as Winston, Kyle Ahrens and Conner George all kissed the Spartan logo at midcourt.
"There are memories," Izzo said. "And I've been involved in some great memories. But coming back from where we were at and the way the season was going and with everything we went through, this has to go down as one of those great memory-making moments."
Big Ten tournament schedule
At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis; all games on BTN unless noted
No. 12 Minnesota vs. No. 13 Northwestern, 6
No. 11 Indiana vs. No. 14 Nebraska, 8:30
No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Michigan, noon
No. 5 Iowa vs. Minnesota-Northwestern winner, 2:30
No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Purdue, 6:30
No. 6 Penn State vs. Indiana-Nebraska winner, 9
No. 1 Wisconsin vs. Rutgers-Michigan winner, noon
No. 4 Illinois vs. Iowa-Minnesota/Northwestern winner, 2:30
No. 2 Michigan State vs. Ohio State-Purdue winner, 6:30
No. 3 Maryland vs. Penn State-Indiana/Nebraska winner, 9
Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 (CBS)
Final, 3:30 (CBS)