It was happening again. Despite a good start and the look that they could actually play with them, it was starting to happen, the same way it always seems to. The Spartans went from a 21-18 lead at the under-eight T.V. timeout to down 30-21 just over two minutes later. It was happening again.
The Blue Devils started to make shots, led by their freshman trio of Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish. Those three erased the lead and went on a run in a hurry to put Duke up nine, the largest deficit for MSU in the tournament. The number one overall seed had put the clamps on MSU defensively, and started to find their rhythm on offense and was starting to pull away.
Around my viewing party, on twitter, and likely in the thoughts and minds of Spartans around the world the same feeling came racing back like a reoccurring nightmare; “here we go again…”
And who can blame us? Time after time over the last 20 years it has happened when these two teams square off. One win in 12 tries, several of them ending MSU’s season, rarely any of them close. The blueprint nearly always the same of the Spartans hanging around for a time before Duke puts together a run and delivers a knockout blow.
So when Tom Izzo called timeout with 5:20 to go in the first half, with Michigan State trailing 30-21, it shouldn’t have come as a shock that most of the Spartan faithful were headed back to the bad place in their minds. But not the guys in the green and white jerseys. They weren’t ready to roll over, and they responded with a run for the ages.
While the game winning shot by Goins or Winston dribbling out the clock or either of Matt McQuaid’s improbable baskets will likely be the lasting moments from this game, none of that is possible without the run to close the first half.
It started, as runs of these nature so often do, with a defensive play. Kenny Goins fronted Zion Williamson to knock the entry pass from Barrett away and then grabbed the loose ball, at the same time drawing a foul call on Williamson, his second. This is an underrated and crucial detail.
The foul forces Zion to the bench, and opens things up for MSU on both ends of the floor.
And then it was Cassius Winston time.
Winston got things started with a driving layup, and the foul, to breathe some life into the Spartans who had not scored for nearly four minutes.
A few possessions later he got a favorable mismatch and drove on Jack White, stopping to open some room and connecting on a short jumper to cut the lead to five.
Coach K, sensing MSU climbing back into it, calls a timeout in an attempt to slow the green momentum wave. It is unsuccessful.
RJ Barrett turns it over on the next possession, and Winston found Tillman wide open at the top of the arc. The Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year buries the three to cut the lead to two, then gets down the floor, plays fantastic defense on Zion, and forces another stop.
Winston pushes off the rebound, knifing through the defense and pulls up at the left elbow for a jumper to tie the game. Two-and-a-half minutes of game time and the Spartans were back even.
They didn’t stop there, the defense continued to shut down Duke, getting another pair of stops. With under a minute to go in the half, Winston picks Barrett’s pocket, takes it the other way and drops it off to a trailing Tillman to give MSU the lead.
Winston then flashes into the passing lane to steal Williamson’s cross court pass and the Spartans can hold for the final shot. Winston takes it himself, clearing everyone out and beating Tre Jones down the lane for a layup.
When it was all said and done it was a 13-0 run to close the half over four-plus minutes. The Spartans reversed the flow of the game, took the momentum back and carried it into the locker room.
Cassius Winston had eight points, and assisted on the other two baskets of the run. He also came up with two steals during the stretch.
It was an answer for the ages by the Spartans. One that MSU fans had been waiting 14 years to see. It also wasn’t surprising at all if you have watched this team all season. The only part that was surprising is that they were able to do it to Duke, the unscalable mountain for Tom Izzo’s teams.
But for this team, and those that have watched them all season, it was just another instance of the incredible mental toughness of this group shining through. This is a team that could have packed it in at any number of times throughout the year, but never did. Instead they get up, brush themselves off, and just…keep...winning.
As the season has unfolded I have had moments, almost every game, where I stop and think to myself how incredible this team is. Their ability to bounce back, re-invent themselves, shrug off adversity, and deal with whatever comes their way is remarkable. I cannot remember a team that has had the stones that this one does.
They truly feel that they can overcome anything and come out on top. Nothing fazes them. They stared the end of their season and another Duke killing blow in the face and responded like Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones, “Not today.”
The run to end the half didn’t ensure anything, but it did let everyone know that this group of Spartans was not going to roll over. This group was not afraid of Big Bad Duke. This group was going to take the fight all the way to the end.
And when it came to winning time, this group made the plays that needed to be made, and won the weekend. They conquered the mountain, cut down the nets, and are hanging a Final Four banner on the peak.
The task is not done, not by a long shot. Two more tests remain in front of them, but one enormous hurdle is behind them. All doubts have been erased. This group is special, and nothing they do anymore should surprise anyone.