DES MOINES, Iowa — In their 24th Big Ten game of the year, the second-seeded Michigan State Spartans rode the brilliance of the Big Ten Player of the Year, junior point guard Cassius Winston, to a 70-50 win over tenth-seeded Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman led MSU with 14 points, but it was Winston’s 13 points and nine assists that told the story.
After Minnesota cut MSU’s 33-19 halftime lead to nine at the 14:41 mark of the second half, Winston made two fallaway jumpers in the half-court and a three in transition to key a 17-4 MSU run and put the game out of reach at 57-35 with 9:18 left.
"You've got to make big plays," Winston said. "I've got to be who I am for this team. That's my role for this team. That's what I've been doing all year. I don't try to do too much. I don't try to put the world on my shoulders, but I try to make plays to the best of my ability."
With the win over a Big Ten rival, MSU advances to face third-seeded LSU in the East regional semifinal on Friday in Washington, D.C.
Trailing 40-23 at the 16:11 mark, junior point guard Amir Coffey scored six as part of an 8-0 Minnesota run that brought the 16,000 at Wells Fargo Arena, most of whom were wearing red and gold, to their feet. The run cut MSU’s lead to 40-31 with 14:41 remaining, before Winston took over.
"I think we had a smaller lineup in for our five," Coffey said of the Gopher run. "We tried to push the tempo a little bit and get them scrambling and it was working. We cut it to eight or nine, and we had the momentum, crowd got into it and Cassius hit some big shots. That really killed us."
There was no match on the boards, as MSU outrebounded Minnesota 45-19.
"It was really huge," senior forward Kenny Goins said of the rebounding advantage. "We’ve been struggling a little bit with that all year, and the matchup, it was there for us. (junior forward Nick Ward), (Tillman), me, we’re all just going in there. Our guards came back and helped us, it was just a whole team effort really gang rebounding."
The Spartans opened the game on a 14-4 run, making seven of their first eight shots. After Minnesota freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur left the game with his second foul at the 10:37 mark of the first half and MSU leading 17-11, the Spartans went on a 14-3 run to bring the lead to 31-17.
"I think we deserve credit for the start we had and we were sloppy, but man, another championship weekend for us and we move on to the next one and I can't tell you how excited I am," MSU coach Tom Izzo said.
While Minnesota struggled to stop Spartan shooting, at 57 percent from the floor, the Gophers forced 22 turnovers.
"I almost had to take a check at halftime to see if we were colorblind," Izzo joked about his team throwing errant passes.
Six MSU players scored at least nine points — freshman forward Aaron Henry, Goins, Ward, and senior guard Matt McQuaid all finished with nine.
Coffey led the Golden Gophers with 25 points, but they were held to 30 percent shooting.
"We just kinda shrunk the floor," Goins said. "We really got back to our defensive principles that we played with early in the season, that really had let us to as many wins as we’ve had the entire season."
Minnesota senior forward Jordan Murphy, the second-leading rebounder in Big Ten history, left the game after four minutes with a back injury and did not return until one ceremonial possession with 1:37 left to finish his career.
"That was hard," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "That was emotional. The hardest thing was that he couldn't play in the game trying to go to the Sweet 16."