Wojo: As Cassius Winston finds his peace, Spartans find their championship edge

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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East Lansing — They’ve felt the pain all season, physical and otherwise, fleeting and lingering. So one more time in the Breslin Center, the Spartans and Cassius Winston did what they’ve been molded to do — they turned the pain into something else.

Forged by unforeseen forces, Michigan State ended up where it often does, with a Big Ten championship, back on track perhaps for something even larger. This was the day Winston said goodbye to the home crowd, and the celebration was as boisterous as you’d expect, right to the final kiss.

Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Aaron Henry hug as Winston comes out of the game late in the second half.

Few ovations have been as thundering and heartfelt as this, with 9.4 seconds left in an 80-69 beating of Ohio State on Sunday, when Winston subbed out and delivered the traditional farewell. He dropped to the floor at center court and planted his final seal on an astounding home career, with more remarkable things still possible.

This was about Winston, one of the program’s all-time greats, perhaps behind only Magic Johnson, but the season has become about so much more. It’s about a third straight Big Ten championship, shared with Wisconsin and Maryland, the 10th conference title in Tom Izzo’s 25 seasons. It’s about a team forced to toughen during hard times, given incentive to do so by Winston’s grace and grit after the death of his brother, Zachary.

When the game was over, Winston climbed into the stands to hug his father and mother, Reginald and Wendi, and his youngest brother, Khy. They smiled and it was a long time coming. Winston vowed he wouldn’t cry and he didn’t, more acutely aware tears are better suited for grief.

“I don’t cry during happy moments,” Cassius said. “There were a couple of emotional moments just because it’s obvious you’re missing one crucial piece, a huge piece, to the celebration. But this is something to be proud of. It’s an emotional night, and it did take a lot to go out there and play. It’s what I love to do, love to put a smile on my parents’ face and my brother’s face. Even (Zachary), I know he’s here with me. I know he’s watching. If I went out and played bad, I’m pretty sure he’d be turning over saying, I need better from you.”

'Figure out a way'

Once again, every time the Spartans (22-9) needed him, Winston was there. The Buckeyes made it tight for a while, tying it 44-44, and then Winston went back to work, finishing with 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting. There were low moments during the season but the big moments have become Winston’s, as Michigan State churns to the Big Ten tournament with victories in six of seven games.

Somehow, the Spartans found a steely-eyed edge after a midseason lull, and look as primed as ever. Xavier Tillman Sr., who recently welcomed his second child into the world, has gone from sleepless nights to relentless ferocity. As effective as he is scoring inside — 15 points Sunday — he’s become an interior defensive monster. When it’s time for pain in the paint, Tillman is there, and teammates are following him.

Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Rocket Watts chat during a break in the action In the second half.

Remember when everyone wondered whether Michigan State could find a third option to boost Winston and Tillman? The candidates keep popping up now, retreating, then popping up again. Rocket Watts has been lethal shooting and defending, and his decision-making has improved. Same with Aaron Henry, who remains the X factor alongside the Xavier factor.

“It’s one of those funny years, you ask me how good we are and I still don’t know, but we’re getting better,” Izzo said. “Going back to where we were, this has to go down as one of the great memory-making moments. Some of it is because Cassius is getting more and more people involved. He’s getting guys shots, spreading the court, has a little hip in his hop. I can say, I couldn’t do what he did, yet it’s my job to push him to do more.”

It’s trite to say winning heals, or basketball heals, but time certainly heals. Nothing could heal Joshua Langford, who took part in the postgame senior ceremonies, although he’s been sidelined all year with a foot injury and could return next season.

But as Winston coped with the suicide of his brother on Nov. 9, Izzo and his teammates coped around him. And now more and more, Winston is able to reveal how he did it.

“There were points in the season where my brain was just stretched thin,” Cassius said. “You never really understand how much it is to carry a team and lead a team, and try to love your family, make sure they’re straight, make sure your little brother is straight. It’s hard to get on (a teammate) for making a mistake when it’s not the biggest thing on your mind. … I was taking it one day at a time, and to be here still standing, it says things can work out, you just gotta figure out a way.”

'Easier to find joy'

It’s a profound example of how life and sport can intertwine, with many of the same challenges and lessons. On Feb. 8, the Spartans were 16-8, losers of three straight, and at times Winston was unfocused, while Izzo was unsure how to handle it. They had their uncomfortable moments, and after meeting with Izzo about three weeks ago, Winston recognized he had to play harder and demand more from teammates.

Since then, The Spartans have beaten Illinois, Maryland and Penn State on the road, and Winston has helped Watts’ confidence grow.

“I didn’t do a very good job the first three months, in my humble opinion, just because I didn’t know how to handle it,” Izzo said. “The greatest thing, somehow, someway, is Cash’s parents reached out and helped me understand. It’s the most difficult year I’ve had, but probably the most rewarding as a coach, as a father, as a friend. There were times I didn’t know if we had enough left in us, and I didn’t know where Cash would be.”

Winston often wasn’t sure where he needed to be — at practice, in the locker room, with his parents, with his little brother. It has been painful to watch such an endearing, caring guy, one of the most thoughtful leaders a program could have, struggle to find peace.

On this day, it was uplifting to watch him seize a piece of it.

“Recently, it’s been easier to find joy,” Winston said. “There was a point where you couldn’t be happy, you felt bad about being happy. But recently, there have been moments like this, being together, and you can sense genuine happiness, people not faking it, being happy with the ones you love.”

It was a long time coming for Winston, and a tough time getting here for the Spartans. They just captured a Big Ten title that seemed probable when the season started, then wholly improbable midway through, then perfectly probable at the end. On a journey to learn how much can be endured, especially by Winston, the answer was emphatic — more than he could ever imagine.

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)


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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