WASHINGTON D.C— It seemed like Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston never stopped running against Duke Sunday evening.
Down the floor in transition. Drawing attention on one edge of the floor to create an open shot for teammates. Setting the screen on the game-winning 3-pointer from forward Kenny Goins with 34.4 seconds left. The 6 foot, 1 inch junior only stopped running after he was mobbed by his teammates after running with the inbound pass as time expired to secure the second-seeded Spartans' 68-67 win over No. 1 Duke in the NCAA Tournament East Region Finals in front of a crowd of 20,125 at Capital One Arena.
"I was like, 'I'm like about to dribble it out, and this is really happening,'" Winston said, smiling. "It was crazy."
Winston played all 40 minutes and finished as MSU's (32-6) leading scorer with 20 points and had a game-high 10 assists.
The consensus Big Ten Player of the Year was also instrumental during the Spartans 13-0 run to close the first half and give MSU a 34-30 lead. The run immediately followed a 12-0 burst from the Blue Devils (32-6). He accounted for three of the first four makes during the spurt, and assisted twice to forward Xavier Tillman, who finished with 19 points.
"He’s the best point guard in the country," guard Kyle Ahrens said, who's been out since the Big Ten Tournament championship game on March 9 with a sprained left ankle. "There’s no doubt about it. That’s what he does. He’s always done that all throughout the season. He gets people open and he creates other people shots."
For MSU, it marks the first Final Four since 2014-15 and eighth under coach Tom Izzo. It's another accolade for the Spartans, who also won the Big Ten Tournament and were co-conference champions with Purdue.
"It’s been a magical season and we just felt like ‘Why stop now? Why walk away now?’ We made it this far, we might as well keep pushing," Winston said.
Winston also had one turnover and four steals, which tied a career-high set twice before against Penn State and Louisiana-Monroe earlier this season. The Spartans forced Duke into 17 turnovers, which gave MSU an additional 24 points.
"They don't beat themselves," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And we had one critical possession after a timeout where we didn't really run what we were supposed to run. And we turned it over. And they didn't do that. They didn't do that. But that's what happens."
Duke forward Zion Williamson called Winston a player with one of the "highest basketball IQ's" he's ever seen. But ask any player on MSU and they'll say it's what Winston does on a regular basis.
It's become even more apparent without starting wing Joshua Langford, who suffered a stress injury in his left foot and has been out for the season since Dec. 29.
"Sometimes I get caught watching the game as a fan when he does certain things because he plays the game so well," Langford said, who watches every game from the bench. "He’s just had a different mindset. Now it’s just more obvious because I’m not on the court. It’s just unbelievable, man. He put in so much work this summer and I’m just so happy for him to be able to see the things he’s achieved.
"He’s gonna do great in the game of basketball. He’s gonna be a great player for a long time. The way we plays the game, the way he scores, the way he passes the ball. I just love it."
In MSU's Sweet Sixteen win over Louisiana State on Friday, Winston became the single-season leader in assists in the Big Ten, passing former Spartan Mateen Cleaves.
When Winston arrived as a freshman, Izzo compared his passing vision to Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Winston said even to be mentioned with Cleaves and Johnson is an honor.
However, the thing they have that Winston doesn't is a National Championship.
"I guess it’s not really my opinion ... on my legacy and the things that I leave," Winston said. "So i’m just trying to keep doing what I’m doing ... to the best of my ability."