Niyo: Cassius Winston delivers as Michigan State's captain in the crunch

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Cassius Winston celebrates as Michigan's Zavier Simpson walks off the floor after the MSU victory.

Ann Arbor — Cassius Winston didn’t need to shush the crowd. They were already heading for the exits.

Besides, that’s not really his style.

But Michigan State’s junior point guard made his statement rather emphatically Sunday just the same, as Winston led the Spartans to a 77-70 victory over No. 7 Michigan, discarding his own personal kryptonite while helping his team reclaim sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with two weeks to go in the regular season.

And after Winston had dribbled out the final seconds of this game and handed the ball to a referee, there was no denying how it felt as he was mobbed by his teammates coming off the bench.

“Amazing,” he said, smiling, as he sat on a folding chair in a crowded visitors’ locker room at Crisler Center. “They know the struggles I had with this team before. They know how big of a game this was for me. And they were there for me the whole time. They wanted it just as bad as I did. We all wanted it really bad.”

They all got what they wanted in the end, heading back to East Lansing after a “total team victory” that Tom Izzo described as one of his biggest in this rivalry after nearly a quarter-century as the Spartans’ head coach.

But no one got more out of it, or put more into it, than Winston did, playing all 40 minutes and finishing with a game-high 27 points and eight assists Sunday.

“He was absolutely tremendous,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after watching his team’s 22-game home winning streak snapped. “We’ve had a lot of point guards come into this building, I’ve coached some great ones, too. That was as good of a performance as you’re gonna see.”

Prescient coach

Izzo, quite frankly, said he could see this one coming. A week ago, with his team still absorbing the shock of losing another starter to injury when Nick Ward broke his hand against Ohio State, Michigan State’s coach turned to his top scorer, best playmaker and floor leader and added one more title to his name: He named Winston a team captain for the remainder of this season.

Matt McQuaid and Joshua Langford, now out for the season after foot surgery, were selected captains back in September. Now Winston’s officially one, too.

“It was a coach’s decision,” Izzo said. “I just felt like this is his time to step forward. And I told him what responsibilities he had and tonight I used those exact words: ‘You’ve gotta put us on your shoulders’ without monopolizing the game or the ball. … I’d say that Cassius took a giant step in the right direction. And I’m really proud of what he’s done.”

It’s not merely what he’s doing, though. It’s what he’s saying, too. Just ask McQuaid, whom Winston helped talk "off the wall" after a second-half sequence that had Izzo screaming in his senior's face.

“Definitely, (Winston) is stepping up,” McQuaid said. “He’s being more vocal now. He’s talking more in huddles and timeouts, showing guys where to go. He’s always been talkative, but now I feel like he’s taking it to another level.”

Sunday, the stage was at a fever pitch, this being only the third time in the history of the rivalry that both teams came in ranked in the top 10 nationally.

What’s more, Michigan State had lost the last three meetings, and Winston had worn each of them, or so the story went. He’d combined for 25 points and as many turnovers (11) as assists in those three losses, and Michigan’s Zavier Simpson got the better of him both in East Lansing and in the Big Ten tournament semifinal in New York last season.

This time, Winston appeared poised and in control throughout, even as the game see-sawed back and forth for 30-plus minutes. Izzo called it “kind of the consummate game” from his point guard, and it was exactly that, whether it was his handling of Michigan’s blitzes off screens or his ability to finish at the rim.

“When he had to drive, he drove,” Izzo said. “When he had to get fouled, he got fouled. When he had to use those ball screens and get other people open, he did that.”

Repeatedly, in fact.

Shredded 'D'

“Our ball-screen defense has been terrific all year,” Beilein said. “But Cassius Winston is terrific. He destroyed our ball-screen defense today. Destroyed it.”

That’s not much of an exaggeration. Michigan State scored 1.33 points per possession Sunday, obscene efficiency numbers for a turnover-prone team against the Big Ten’s best defense. All the late free throws played a part in that, but so did all of Winston’s playmaking throughout as the Spartans committed just six turnovers all game — only two in the second half — and barely got anything from their transition game, which is usually where they beat teams.  

It was Winston who gave Michigan State the lead for good midway through the second half, curling off a screen and beating Simpson for an off-balance layup. It was Winston again beating Simpson, driving to his left and down the lane to cap the 10-2 run that put the Spartans up 62-55 with 6:10 to play.

And it was Winston — again and again — going to the line in the closing minutes, calmly knocking down his free throws and sending the maize-clad fans quietly streaming to the exits. Never mind that he did all that without getting a rest, same as Simpson. 

"There was a lot riding on this,” he explained. “So it wasn’t hard to dig deep. ... I actually didn’t feel it until I got to the locker room. There was so much adrenaline that you couldn’t even feel it. I was just out there playing, trying to win. I got to the locker room and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m tired.’"

And if he was tired of hearing how he'd come up short against his rival, well, this had to sound pretty good: The Michigan State fans in attendance were chanting “M-V-P!” near the end of the game as he sealed the win at the free-throw line.

They're right, of course. This game should seal the deal for Winston as Big Ten player of the year. Likewise, it should end the narrative that'd been building.

“I don’t really get into the personal thing,” he said. “We’re playing for a championship. That was a really good team in a really tough environment and us winning? That’s really all the satisfaction we need.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo