Winston wills Spartans to rout Minnesota, advance to Sweet 16
DES MOINES, Iowa — During a three-minute, 11-second stretch near the beginning of the second half Saturday night, Michigan State had no answer for a desperate full-court press from Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers forced four sloppy turnovers and shrunk MSU's 40-23 lead with 16:42 to play to a nine-point deficit. Most of the 16,770 fans at Wells Fargo Arena were cheering against the Spartans. It was Minnesota's last legitimate chance to keep its season alive.
Then, two straight midrange jumpers and a momentum-shifting 3-pointer in transition all from Cassius Winston muted the crowd and rid any attempt of a comeback as the No. 2 Spartans (30-6) routed the 10th-ranked Gophers, 70-50, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"We needed it," Winston said, who scored 13 points and had a game-high nine assists in 33 minutes. "I felt that momentum going and I just felt like I needed to make some plays."
Minnesota guard Amir Coffey, who finished with a game-high 27 points, admitted Winston's burst felt like a dagger.
"Cassius just came through for MSU and hit some clutch shots for him that stopped the run," Coffey said.
Seven of those assists for Winston — a first-team All American and Big Ten Player of the Year — came in the first half, when the Spartans shot 14-for-23 (60.9 percent) from the field to take a 33-19 advantage into halftime.
"It’s crazy how normal that is to me," forward Kenny Goins said. "That’s just Cassius Winston and he makes those plays. That’s why he was player of the year."
Winston took responsibility for the bulk of MSU's 22 turnovers, which accounted for an additional 26 points for Minnesota. Winston finished with four, second-most to Goins's five, but said he found it hard to focus on ball control after building such a large lead early.
"I think it starts with me," Winston said. "I definitely have to be better. Just being more locked in and being more focused. A couple turnovers I made that I usually don’t make. So I set the tone for the team in that sense."
Minnesota forced five turnovers to force a 4:46 scoring drought at the end of the first half into the break. According to forward Xavier Tillman, when the Gophers began their run in the second, he knew someone needed to step up.
"We were kind of coasting," said Tillman, MSU's leading scorer with 14. "Because we had a big lead, and Cassius was coasting as well. Then the crowd got into it and the energy peaked. He’s like ‘OK it’s time for me to turn it on too.’"
Winston admitted fatigue was also a factor. Since the beginning of postseason play, the 6-foot standout from Detroit has averaged 31.8 minutes a game while dealing with tendinitis in both knees.
"He needs some rest," coach Tom Izzo said. "I mean, that's the best I can tell you. He needs some rest, he deserves some rest, he’s earned some rest."
Coaches and players agree Winston has been the driving force for the Spartans, who with the win advanced to their first Sweet 16 since the 2014-15 team made it to the Final Four.
With six days off until MSU is back on the floor to take on No. 3 Louisiana State (28-6) in Washington D.C., a healthy and focused Winston will take MSU as far as he can handle.
"We don’t have to do much to get Cassius shots," assistant Dane Fife said. "He has the ability to be patient and find his own. ... I think we’re not totally dependent on him, but the expectation on him to make plays when we need them is there."