WASHINGTON (AP) — Cassius Winston put Michigan State on his shoulders and carried the Spartans into the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
The do-everything point guard took over the game when his team faced its biggest deficit and led second-seeded Michigan State to a 68-67 victory over overall No. 1 seed Duke on Sunday in the East Region final.
Duke boasted the biggest stars in Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, but Winston shined brightest with 20 points and 10 assists. He made nine of his 23 shots and never shied away from shooting.
“Now is not the time to doubt yourself,” Winston said. “We’ve been working, we’ve been playing all year to get to these moments. Now’s not the time to shy away from those big moments.”
The biggest moment is yet to come.
Michigan State will play Texas Tech in one national semifinal Saturday in Minneapolis. Virginia faces Auburn in the other.
Winston was the facilitator but the Spartans received a huge boost from their oldest player. Kenny Goins, a fifth-year senior who missed his first four 3-point attempts, drained the go-ahead shot with 34.3 seconds left to put Michigan State up 68-66.
“I was out there, great pass, trusted it and let it go and it went down,” Goins said.
Duke had the chance to tie but Barrett missed the first of two free throws with 5.2 seconds left. Duke was helpless with only four fouls, and Winston was able to get the ball away from the Duke defenders and dribble out the clock.
“There wasn’t enough time so I tried to miss the second one and it went in,” Barrett said.
Michigan State is in the Final Four for the eighth time under coach Tom Izzo, who beat Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for just the second time in 13 meetings and second time in seven NCAA Tournament games. Izzo is in the Final Four for the eighth time in his career and tied Krzyzewski what would have been a record 13th appearance.
“I love you all, I appreciate you all. I’ll see you in Minneapolis” Izzo, who wiped away tears, told the celebrating crowd that included Michigan State alumnus Magic Johnson.
Izzo had to navigate foul trouble to big man Xavier Tillman, who was essential in guarding Williamson and factoring in on the offensive end. Tillman played 29 minutes and scored 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting.
Duke fell one step short of the Final Four after finally coming out on the losing end of a nail-biter. The Blue Devils won their previous two NCAA Tournament games by a combined three points, and escaped in the final seconds only when their opponents missed at the buzzer.
Falling short likely ended the college career of Williamson, the freshman sensation expected to leave Duke for the NBA. Williamson is predicted to be the top pick in the NBA draft and CBS dedicated a camera to his every move in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re very upset, obviously, but congrats to Michigan State,” Williamson said. “Just looking around the locker room and see your teammates, your brothers and you just think this group will probably never play together again.”
Williamson finished with a game-high 24 points and 14 rebounds. Barrett had 21 points — but not the one that could have sent the game into overtime. That’s thanks in large part to Winston, who made or assisted on 19 of Michigan State’s 30 shots.
“Winston was the difference maker,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s the best guard we’ve played against.”
Cam Reddish didn’t start for Duke but the freshman was the first player off the bench two minutes in after being a game-time decision. Reddish missed the Sweet 16 victory against Virginia Tech on Friday with a left knee injury.
Reddish missed his first two shots before his two free throws gave Duke its first lead at 22-21 with 7:10 left in the first half.
While this is the Spartans’ 10th Final Four, it’s the first in program history for their opponent, Texas Tech, which beat Gonzaga to win the West Region.