East Lansing — Cassius Winston was at his best on the biggest stage Saturday afternoon, reaching his ultimate goal of becoming a state champion in leading top-ranked Detroit Jesuit to a 69-49 victory over North Farmington in the Class A title game at the Breslin Center.
Winston, a 6-foot-1 point guard headed for Michigan State, scored 31, making 14-of-16 shots after being named Mr. Basketball earlier in the week.
How good was Winston?
Well, Winston was at his best during the final minutes of the second quarter, making a move near the top of the key where he dribbled between his legs, split two defenders and scored on a layup for a 34-25 lead, then knocked down a three-pointer moments later to open up a 10-point cushion.
OK, he may have been even better in the third when he attacked the basket for a 48-33 lead after North Farmington junior guard Amauri Hardy had just missed finishing at the other end, then connecting on another three-pointer from the top of the key for a 51-33 cushion with two minutes left.
Yes, Winston was special, also dishing out nine assists. He even took time for a picture while standing next to the Mr. Basketball trophy at half court between the third and fourth quarters with a T-shirt showcasing an upcoming prom date offer to Farmington Hills Mercy student Arin Bell.
“I asked her to go to prom,” said Winston, talking of his T-shirt, reading: 'Arin, Prom?' “I knew before that I wasn’t going to get a no.”
No, Winston wasn’t worried that he’d get turned down by Bell, nor did he seemed concerned that he would fall short of ending his high school career without lifting the state championship trophy.
“This was definitely one of those days where I knew I had to have my best performance,” Winston said. “This was going to be my last high school game, my last chance of winning the state championship, so I knew I had to go out and play my best game so I was just zoned in, focused and ready to go. We’ve been working long and hard for this moment to win a state championship.”
Winston was playing at the top of his game from the opening tip and his teammates knew it.
“I was scoring the basketball so my teammates kept going to me,” Winston said. “They kept going to me, they kept ball-screening for me every time. I was open, I was getting the ball because I was making shots so they provided for me.
“They (North Farmington) definitely spaced it out a little more, there was a lot more open lane so I guess that’s a credit to our team. Last year we didn’t have as many people who could score the basketball so everyone would just be waiting in the paint for me. This year we have Scotty (Nelson) scoring 13, making threes, and we have (Ike) Eke and Greg (Eboigbodin) making plays, so the defense can’t just focus on me.”
Winston definitely had a lot of help. Eke (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Eboigbodin (eight points, eight rebounds) were forces inside at 6-9. Junior Scotty Nelson came off the bench to score 13 and sophomore guard Elijah Collins made North Farmington senior guard Billy Thomas work for every one of his 23 points (9-of-21 shooting, 2-of-7 threes).
Nelson made two three-pointers, but his biggest play came on a three-point play (basket and free throw) with 35.3 seconds left in the opening quarter to give the Cubs a 19-15 lead after North Farmington center Alex Darden missed a dunk after getting a steal seconds before.
“The coaches are always telling me to go aggressively to the basket,” Nelson said. “He (Darden) overplayed it so he was behind me and I kind of felt him on my outside hip so I just kind of drove and tried to go into him, just got the ball off the glass, got the foul call and made the free throw.”
Jesuit coach Pat Donnelly credited the Cubs’ defensive effort for the title win.
“I can’t be more proud of the way these guys came out today and performed,” Donnelly said. “I thought we hung our hat on what we do best and that is defend and that allowed us some great opportunities.
“Just being named the state champion of Michigan in Class A is something that we’ve dreamed of at U of D and over 100 years of basketball history this is the first one and from what I understand it’s the first time a Class A team from the Catholic League has won in over 40 years so there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of pride right now sitting up here and to be able to say we’re state champions.”
Jesuit (28-0) led 21-15 after one, 39-27 at halftime and 55-40 after three. North Farmington (24-3) missed its first 10 three-pointers, all nine during the first half, and made just 5-of-24 for the game.
“I thought all night we were able to penetrate and kick, but to be able to beat them you have to make shots,” North Farmington coach Todd Negoshian said. “I thought we got the open looks and I thought early on we made them. We got what we wanted and I thought we had the open looks all night long that we needed to get.”
Still, Winston was the difference.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him play in four years,” said Negoshian of Winston, who led Jesuit to a 52-34 regional final win over North Farmington last season. “I don’t know if it was the big stage, his final game, but that’s the Cassius Winston that’s going to Michigan State. He was really damn good tonight.”
Donnelly wasn’t surprised by his star’s performance.
“Nothing Cassius does surprises me,” Donnelly said. “He’s been doing this for four years. He was 14-of-16 and a lot of that is great shot selection. He’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached. The reason he shoots at such a high percentage is he’s talented and he also takes great shots. If he does get double-teamed he’ll find the open man.”
No doubt, Winston will find the open man.
“His vision on the court and ability to take over a game is second to none,” said Nelson of Winston. “I’m looking forward to watching him play at Michigan State next year.”