All game long, the ball was in his hands, a Greenergizer Bunny in a sea of yellow jerseys. Dribbling, driving, dishing, laying it in. He never came out. Never took a breather. Finally, after all that action forged a sizable lead, Michigan had no choice but to foul him, foul him, and foul him again. Cassius Winston eased to the line and made, one, two, three, four — ah, forget the counting — seven straight free throws in the final 50 seconds, because he was not letting go of this game. He was going to finish what he started. Literally.
“How tired where you after 40 minutes of that?” someone asked Winston, MSU’s junior point guard, after his No. 10-ranked Spartans upended arch-rival and No. 7-ranked Michigan on the road, final score 77-70.
“I actually didn’t feel it til I got into the locker room,” Winston said, laughing. “I didn’t fall down, but I felt it … My legs were a lot heavier.”
Ah, but the Spartans’ burden was suddenly lighter. On a wintry Sunday afternoon when the outside winds were so strong Tom Izzo’s team could have hopped a kite to Ann Arbor, MSU discovered that losing two of its starters doesn’t have to mean disaster.
Without recently injured Nick Ward and gone-for-the-season Joshua Langford, the Spartans still unfurled a top-shelf demo of basketball smarts against a really good Michigan team, clogging the middle, forcing the Wolverines into dubious outside shooting, and letting Winston, MSU’s Mr. Everything, do, well, everything.
“Cassius Winston was unbelievable,” Izzo marveled afterwards. “We just kinda kept the ball in his hands. That didn’t mean he was getting shots (but) that’s what makes a guy great. He made other players better.”
Winston’s stat line was impressive enough: 27 points, 13 of 14 free throws, eight assists, two steals, two rebounds, and only one foul. But those numbers tell the story the way a playbill tells a musical.
Winston was MSU’s offense on Sunday. Virtually every play went through him. Ball goes to him. Ball goes back to him. He dribbled on some possessions 10 to 15 seconds, until the defense gave him the slightest opening and he attacked or dished or finger-rolled or pulled up. He drew the Wolverines in, then unloaded to a teammate. He was part cannon, part Trojan Horse.
Guess we shouldn’t say “Trojan” in Spartan Land.
MSU ‘made us play poorly’
Then again, here were the Spartans in Wolverine Land, which is not as historic as ancient Greece, but equally unfriendly.
In a sold-out Crisler Center, so thickly yellow it was like sitting in a tub of buttered popcorn, Michigan was riding a three-game winning streak in this intrastate rivalry, and had not lost a game at home all year.
Combine that with MSU’s depleted roster, and the afternoon was more than hopeful for John Beilein’s squad. Heck, they even trotted out every national championship contender this side of the Fab Five, including the 1964, 1974 and 1989 teams. Cazzie Russell was there. Steve Fisher was there. Terry Mills. Loy Vaught. Rob Pelinka.
Glen Rice even pulled his old team together at halftime and led the entire building in a collective “GO BLUE!”
But none of that karma could nudge the home team past the Spartans’ choking defense, or the Wolverines beyond their lack of offensive weaponry. Although Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s answer to Winston (and until Sunday, his tormentor) had 19 points and five rebounds, his game didn’t inspire the way Winston’s did. Michigan held slight leads in this tugging affair, and at one point surged ahead, 51-45, five minutes into the second half.
But after that, their engines coughed and sputtered, and they went on long droughts, at one point missing 12 of 13 shots, and clanking 3-pointers into the waiting hands of Spartan rebounders. MSU would not let them drive, would not let them get inside. Michigan’s cold shooting took care of the rest. They finished the night 7 of 26 from 3-point range.
“They were much better than us in just about everything,” Beilein said afterwards. “Offense, defense … We’re gonna have to play better than that. They made us play poorly. Give them credit. We’re a pretty good team and we weren’t the better team today.”
Much of that must be attributed to Winston, who, right from the early minutes, was running the MSU factory. He found teammate Xavier Tillman open in the paint for a dunk. Found him on the next possession for a layup. Dished to Matt McQuaid on the next possession for a 3-pointer. Then drove the lane for his first two points.
You get the idea? Winston was in on all of it. And when the night was over, he’d erased any notion that maybe Michigan had his number.
Remember, in his first four games against Michigan, Winston had averaged just over 10 points a game, and had as many turnovers as assists. He’d shot 38.5 percent, and the media couldn’t help but point out that when matched against Simpson, the Maize and Blue point guard was dominating the story.
Not anymore. Winston answered any and all critics with what he did in enemy territory Sunday.
“How satisfying was this for you, given the history?” Winston was asked.
“Really satisfying. Just how we played. We played hard. We played together. That was big.”
How about for you personally?
“Like I said, it was big. I don’t really get into the personal thing. We’re playing for a championship. That was a really good team.”
And so was MSU. College basketball fans should savor this rivalry, for it has reached a quality high point under Beilein and Izzo.
“John and I talked before the game (and said) this could end up one of the best rivalries,” Izzo said. “I know Duke-North Carolina’s got 100 years on us, but there aren’t a lot of places where two schools in the same state are in the top 10.”
They likely will be again this week, but with their positions flopped. That’s OK. Things change in these battles.
Just ask Winston, who, fittingly, ended the game with the ball in his hands, dribbling out the clock, then bouncing it to the referee, his day over, his race well run.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.