Saturday night, the Michigan State Spartans exercised more than a few demons.
With the weight of not reaching the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2015, first-round struggles and criticism of the program all weighing on the Spartans, they wasted no time getting to work. Unfortunately for the Big Ten, it was the Minnesota Golden Gophers on the receiving end. The Spartans domination would end in a 70-50 final score.
As always, it was the mild-mannered point guard in the middle of everything.
Cassius Winston was relatively quiet through the first half. Despite scoring only four points in the first half, Winston went to the break with seven assists, helping the Spartans to a 33-19 lead. But it was clear to his head coach that Winston was not playing his best game.
In the second half, when the Spartans were pressed for the first time all game that Winston showed how much he’s really worth to MSU.
Michigan State watched its halftime lead shrink to just nine with 14 minutes to play. That’s when Tom Izzo challenged his All-American.
“I always tell him, ‘when the head goes, the body follows.’ He’s our head,” Izzo said. “When he got back on the horse, the rest of the guys did. It’s pretty cool that he’s got that much impact on our team.”
Winston then went on a one-man tear, scoring seven straight points. The game would never feel close again.
“It’s more about showing your energy level, you’re approach,” Winston said. “You know, just focusing in on the task at hand. You got to make some big plays. I have to be who I am for this team.”
Winston’s steady play paid off in a big way for his teammates’ stat sheets. Xavier Tillman had a team-high 14 points. Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward scored nine points each. Henry recovered nicely from his issues in the first-round, leading the team in rebounds with eight.
“That’s just typical Cassius, that’s just what he does,” Tillman said after the game. “Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute whenever we need him to just lead vocally, he does whatever we need him to do. That was just another day in the park.”
Izzo repeatedly mentioned the heavy load placed on Winston and how crucial he is to the team. And now, how important it is to get Winston some time off.
“I’m a little concerned because, he’s struggling. If I was going to be honest with you, that wasn’t the best I’ve seen Cassius play,” Izzo said. “And if he can do that not playing his best, that bodes well. But we’re going to have to get him some rest the next couple of days.”
While it was the MSU offense that closed the door, it was Minnesota’s offense that may have made the biggest difference. The Spartans defense held the Gophers to only 30 percent from the field and an outrageous nine percent (2-22) from three. Only three Minnesota players scored more than two points and only Amir Coffey – who had 27 – scored more than eight points.
The win was the 50th career NCAA Tournament win for Izzo. The Spartans move on to the Sweet Sixteen for the 20th time in program history. They will meet the LSU Tigers in Washington D.C. Three-seed LSU beat Maryland earlier in the day to secure their spot.