Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski credited Michigan State’s poise. He pointed to their tireless defense, their effective plays in the half-court, and the fact that “they don’t beat themselves.” An emotional Zion Williamson said Kenny Goins’ go-ahead three was “big-time.”
There has been a blueprint to stay with the overall No. 1 seed Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament—UCF and Virginia Tech’s thrillers with Krzyzewski’s team have proven as much. Yet, as defeat was twice escaped by a favorable roll of ball on rim, it seemed an aura of invincibility had begun to surround the Blue Devils and their larger-than-life talisman, Williamson.
Whatever the reason, Michigan State cracked the code Sunday night in Washington DC, outlasting Duke 68-67. East Regional Most Outstanding Player Cassius Winston scored 20 points and served up 10 assists against only one turnover, while Xavier Tillman recorded a workmanlike 19 points and nine rebounds battling Williamson in the post all night.
The Spartans met only one of coach Tom Izzo’s three keys to the game at Capital One Arena, yet they’ll be wheels up to Minneapolis this week regardless.
“Number one, I said let’s get to the free throw line first,” Izzo said. The Spartans connected on two of their mere six free throw attempts Sunday night.
“I said, we’ve got to out-rebound them. The first 10 minutes I thought we did a phenomenal job on the boards, very good job on the offensive boards. But then they took over.” Michigan State was bested on the boards 42-31.
“But then the third one was maybe as big as any of them. We said, we can’t turn the ball over,” Izzo finished. “To have seven turnovers against a team like that and turn them over 17 times, I thought was the difference in the game.”
Indeed, the Spartans wreaked havoc all night, realizing that Williamson was going to get his, but trying to make his life as hard as possible in the process. Michigan State scored 24 points off of those 17 forced turnovers, while allowing just nine Duke points on their miscues. MSU ranks 201st in the country in KenPom adjusted tempo—Duke likes to fly, ranking 21st by the same metric. On Sunday, the Spartans tagged their opponents for 15 fast break points; Duke failed to score one.
“He’s a heavy right-shoulder guy,” Tillman said of State’s strategy in defending Zion. “So just try to limit him from going right shoulder as much as we could, to make his touches tough, and not to give up any lobs either.”
Michigan State’s opening possession in Friday’s 80-63 win over LSU was a confident dribble pull-up from role player Aaron Henry, which turned out to be indicative of how the rest of the contest would develop, with Henry going for a career-high 20 points. Sunday night, an errant Duke pass fell into the hands of Winston, who instinctively lobbed the ball down the floor for Goins to slam home. It uncannily resembled how the remainder of the game transpired.
The first half was one of increasingly titanic momentum swings. After drawing first blood, the State lead would increase thanks to back-to-back possessions where they twice rebounded their own misses before scoring—the latter possession prompting Krzyzewski to bark at Barrett. A trademark Nick Ward left hook put the Spartans up 10-4 in quick time. Barrett answered Krzyzewski by scoring seven straight points, with all three baskets set up by classmate Tre Jones.
After trading baskets, the Blue Devils took their first lead on Cam Reddish free throws before the heralded freshman quartet of Williamson, Barrett, Jones, and Reddish displayed their chemistry. Winston missed another jumper to fall to 2-8 in the first half, and Williamson found Reddish behind the arc out of a double team; on their next trip down, Jones dialed one up for Barrett from distance. Michigan State’s 21-18 lead seemed an eternity ago after Duke’s 12-0 run, which forced an Izzo timeout.
Scorers like Winston don’t stay silent long, we know. After Williamson was sent to the bench for picking up a second foul, Winston went right at DeLaurier under the bucket
for a layup. Jack White’s three-pointer came up way short at the other end, and seconds later White found himself switched onto Winston after a pick. Winston easily duped White, going up-and-under for a bucket, before finding a wide-open Tillman on their next trip down at the top of the arc for three. Just like that, the Spartans were within two. After pulling up on Tre Jones from the elbow, Winston ripped the ball from Barrett and dropped it off for Tillman in transition for another bucket, before beating Jones off the dribble to the can on a clearout play as time wound down on the first half.
Krzyzewski was to the point in analyzing Winston’s performance: “He’s the best guard we’ve played against. Ten assists and one turnover.”
When the buzzer sounded, Michigan State held a 34-30 lead. Winston and Tillman had outscored the Blue Devils 13-0 to finish the period.
Izzo praised the Spartans’ resilience: “And I say we might not be as physically tough as some teams I’ve had, but I think mentally we might be tougher than any team I’ve had.”
For Duke, Barrett’s 5-9 start was promising after his early struggles in Friday’s win over Virginia Tech, but the Canadian was also a key factor in the Blue Devils’ 10 first-half turnovers. Still, despite ceding 10 more field goal attempts than they took, Duke’s deficit stood at only four at half.
Duke was no stranger to slow starts in the NCAA Tournament—they led 16-seed North Dakota State by only four after trailing for much of the first half, and had entered the second half down by four against VT on Friday. Hardly a fan among the 20,125 that jammed into Capital One Arena wouldn’t have predicted that we would get a bout that would come down to the very last possession after the back-and-forth first half we witnessed Sunday.
Right on cue, after State had come out of the gates with a well-executed alley-oop play for Henry before Henry facilitated for Tillman and Goins inside, Duke’s gunners, especially Williamson, roared to life. Zion drew Tillman’s third foul and earned free throws. On the Blue Devils’ next two possessions, Williamson squared up the slower-footed Ward and hit from three before easily muscling by the senior for two more. Cam Reddish came off a screen to can a three, before Jones gunned a pass to Williamson in the corner, who sank his second triple. Duke led, 52-48, and suddenly looked on the verge of pulling away.
Needless to say, the Spartans tightened things up, and Winston and Tillman turned it on offensively. First, Winston found himself open for three and hit after his miss was rebounded by Goins. Then, Tillman got a big hand on Barrett’s entry pass for Zion in the post, before being set up on a platter by Winston for a two-handed slam off of a pick-and-roll.
Duke would claw back, however, through an unlikely source. After carving out room for a layup underneath, DeLaurier stuffed Winston’s fadeaway attempt at the other end, before claiming a putback on Barrett’s miss as the Blue Devils retook the lead, 56-53.
Goins then snapped his cold streak from deep with a difficult three, before Tillman again denied a Barrett attempted entry pass to the post. Matt McQuaid’s contorting layup then seesawed the contest back in favor of Sparty.
“I think when I’d catch it on the post they would bring two or three defenders, so I wouldn’t be able to do spin moves,” Williamson would go on to say. “It was great defense obviously. He [Tillman] played great defense.”
The Winston-to-Tillman show added another act as Xavier thundered home a dunk despite being hacked by DeLaurier, but DeLaurier found himself alone again inside on the next possession. Barrett’s faceup three with 2:32 remaining found twine, and Krzyzewski’s record 13th Final Four appearance was looking all the more likely by the second. Williamson and Tillman traded bulldozing buckets inside, but then Barrett lost his handle and put up a bad attempt with 53 seconds on the clock.
The Spartans were going to have an opportunity out of a timeout, trailing 66-65. Who were the Spartans going to go to? Winston, surely. Perhaps Tillman off of a ball screen. Izzo had other plans.
“We ran it earlier—didn’t work. Went back to it,” Kenny Goins said. “Coach was like, ‘It’s going to be open.’”
The play called for Goins and Tillman to be situated on the two elbows. Winston fed an entry pass to Tillman, before cutting goalwards on Goins’ side. Williamson, who was guarding Goins, shuffled to impede Winston.
It was all the space Goins needed. He popped out, caught the ball from Tillman and launched an arching three as Williamson scrambled to recover, still nearly blocking the shot with his breathtaking leaping ability.
“I was kind of measuring up how high Zion could jump since he got the last one,” Goins laughed. “As soon as it left my hand I knew it was good. I was kind of planning my celebration already, but I knew I had to get back on defense. “
Now the onus was on Duke to get a bucket. Barrett took a similar faceup three to the one he had just canned two minutes earlier. This one came up short, but the ball was ruled to be heading back to Duke after a replay review of the rebound. Barrett was clobbered on his way to the rim with 5.2 seconds remaining, but could not hit the first of his pair of free throws.
It seemed likely Michigan State would have to hit their free throws and then defend a potential buzzer-beater. Winston and Tillman were on a different wavelength.
“I was like, I’m just going to throw it up court because nobody’s expecting us to go up court. I told Kenny, you go that way, Cash go that way,” Tillman would recall. “I thought he was going to get fouled.”
Winston streaked down the floor towards unoccupied hardwood, leaving Barrett only able to look at the “5” on his back. Doing a frantic lap around the Duke basket, Winston flung the ball in the air as time expired.
Krzyzewski said of the Spartans: “Going forward, with the system that they have, the defense they play, the rebounding and him, they have a heck of a chance. They have a heck of a chance to win it all.”
This marks MSU’s eighth Final Four appearance under Izzo and their first since 2014-15. What Izzo and his star point guard’s mother really desire, though, is that elusive third title in program history.
“My dream came true tonight on the floor because I said, ‘how about that?’—and Cassius’ mother said, ‘That’s not good enough. We’ve got two more.’ I looked at her and I said, “A woman of my heart.’”
For Duke, this is a devastating end to one of the most fascinating team seasons in college sports history: one that featured unfathomable talent, never-before-seen highlight clips, and an immense amount of pressure for four freshmen to bear the brunt of.
“They’re deserving of, like, special things and they have had a special year,” Krzyzewski said of his squad. “But this not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment for us.”
Williamson discussed his experience at Duke: “I regret nothing about this, even if the one and done rule wasn’t there. This is an experience I don’t think you can get anywhere else. We battled, we went through everything together, and to come this far, I’m proud of everybody.”
Michigan State will square off against Texas Tech at 8:49 PM next Saturday, April 6, at US Bank Stadium. Virginia and Auburn will meet in the other Final Four tilt.