How Cassius Winston, Michigan State basketball can become elite in Final Four

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How Cassius Winston, Michigan State basketball can become elite in Final Four

Cassius Winston (5) of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Duke Blue Devils in the East Regional Final of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on Sunday, March 31, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Duke Blue Devils 68-67.

Cassius Winston (5) of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Duke Blue Devils in the East Regional Final of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on Sunday, March 31, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Duke Blue Devils 68-67.

Rob Carr/Getty IMages

Cassius Winston (5) of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Duke Blue Devils in the East Regional Final of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on Sunday, March 31, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Duke Blue Devils 68-67.

Rob Carr/Getty IMages

Rob Carr/Getty IMages

Cassius Winston (5) of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Duke Blue Devils in the East Regional Final of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on Sunday, March 31, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Duke Blue Devils 68-67.

By Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON — Trepidation remained high, the 4.7 seconds left seeming like an eternity.

A one-point lead. A Final Four berth at stake. An inbounds play in front of the Duke bench.

How would the Blue Devils pull this one off? What could go wrong for Michigan State?

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Cassius Winston answered, like he has so many other times.

Winston came off a screen. Duke’s RJ Barrett hawked him after a switch but briefly stumbled. Xavier Tillman shoved a textbook two-hand chest pass toward midcourt.

No one will confuse Winston for a track star. But in that moment, one that will be replayed for years to come, MSU’s junior point guard burst out like a sprinter.

Zion Williamson gave chase, to no avail.

“I got the ball and got away,” Winston said. “And I was like, I’m like about to dribble it out and this is really happening. It was crazy. It was a crazy moment.”

As the realization hit the rest of Capital One Arena, with Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves in the stands exhaling as nervous fans, Winston whipped the ball into the air and etched his name in the stratosphere of Spartan history as his teammates and coaches mobbed him in joyous celebration.

That it ended up in Winston’s hands when MSU needed one more play comes as no surprise. Neither did his 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and just one turnover in guiding the Spartans to a 68-67 victory over the Blue Devils.

Next stop: Minneapolis and the Final Four.

“There was no doubt in my mind,” Winston said moments after being named the East region’s Most Outstanding Player. “It didn’t cross my mind about losing one time. We went out there and played, played good basketball.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Detroit shot just 9-for-23 but made critical buckets and passes in pressure-packed points.

“He stirs the drink in a lot of different ways,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “But tonight, he had a couple steals — if he starts playing defense, I’m going to start to get scared. He did a great job in a lot of ways.”

Winston started the game by collecting the first of Duke’s 17 turnovers and flinging it ahead to Kenny Goins for a dunk to open the game with an exclamation point. He set up Matt McQuaid a little later in transition for another highlight-reel slam, part of the Spartans’ tone-setting 16-9 burst to open the game.

But the Blue Devils, as they would all night, answered with their own run. The first would be a 19-5 spurt that closed with 12 straight points. Tom Izzo called timeout.

An undaunted Winston took command, driving through the lane and absorbing contact on a pair of layups. Then he kicked out a pass to Tillman at the top of the key for a wide-open 3-pointer.

A Winston jumper. Then a steal and dish to Tillman. Then another steal and driving layup with 4 seconds left before halftime.

Winston’s eight points in a 13-0 run counterpunch sent MSU into the break up, 34-30, and brimming with confidence.

“The heart of a lion is what they have. I’m telling you, the mental toughness, even when we were down 30-21, there was no panic in the huddle,” Izzo said. “We just said, we didn’t do some things right. We quit rebounding and getting the ball inside. We turned it around.

“And Cash has a lot to do with it.”

Out of the break, the Spartans got the ball and Winston delivered another half-opening assist for a dunk, this one a pinpoint lob to Aaron Henry.

Again, Duke answered. Things began to go back and forth. Twice Winston drained 3-pointers after the Blue Devils went in front, the second of which came after Williamson hit one to pare Duke’s four-point lead to one.

Winston continued to respond, scoring on a driving, off-kilter floater after contact that dance around the rim and fell. He stole a long lob pass that sailed over Williamson’s reach, pushed the pace in transition and bounced a pass to Tillman for a dunk and three-point play that made it 63-59 with 4:07 left.

Back came Duke with seven straight points to steal back the lead.

And when it looked like the Spartans didn’t have one more run left in them, Winston once again rose to the occasion.

Off the dribble, with three defenders closing in as he spun in the paint, Winston looped a shot that wasn’t — he somehow spotted Tillman cutting along the baseline and directed it to the right side of the rim for a layup that made it 66-65.

“I think it is an experience thing along with talent,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And he is as good a player as we’ve played against. I mean, he’s a big-time player. … He’s coached by a heck of a guy in (Izzo). And he’s able to run what Tom is thinking in real time and feel the game and that really is one of the biggest gifts a player can give a coach. And he has that as well, probably as well as anyone in the country.”

Almost as improbable as his speed burst to close out the game, Winston contributed to the game-winning basket without even touching the ball.

His screen on the left block slowed up the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson just enough to free up Goins at the top of the key. The outstretched reach of the Duke star just missed a block, as the ball spun in perfect rotation through the hoop.

Thanks to the one assist from Winston that didn’t involve him passing.

“That was just an initial read — a down-screen for him, and I was gonna set a back-screen for X to try and get an easy layup,” Winston said of Goins’ shot. “They backed up off him, and he stepped up and knocked it down. A big play — big-time players make big-time plays.”

Just like Winston did all night.

Izzo talked after the game about how each of his teams over his 24 years form exclusive clubs. The Big Ten championship teams have their own place in history, as do the now eight Final Four squads that this year’s group joins.

There remains an even higher level, one that only Magic and Mateen and their charges are part of — MSU’s national championships from 1979 and 2000.

Winston could join them. His Spartans continue to go as he goes, making the jump from good to great with this season.

The next step is to become elite, both individually and collectively. Two wins next week would do that and solidify Winston’s place in MSU history with a senior season in front of him to do accomplish more.

But first, he and the Spartans have a date with Texas Tech in the Twin Cities.

“That Spartan legacy and family, it goes back years and years and years. And they’re still pushing for us, still supporting us,” Winston said. “And we hope to do the same thing, you know what I’m saying? We hope to leave our mark.”

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