The first-half counterpunch that allowed MSU to hang with Duke
The run came long before the green and white confetti fell on the makeshift stage at Capital One Arena to celebrate Michigan State’s 68-67 win over Duke in the NCAA tournament East regional final. It came long before Kenny Goins’ game-winning three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining, and even longer before Cassius Winston skirted around five white jerseys to run the clock out on Tom Izzo’s exorcism of his Blue Devils.
With 5:22 remaining in the first half, freshman guard RJ Barrett buried a three from the left wing to cap a 12-0 run, give Duke a 30-21 lead and bring the royal blue portion of the crowd to its feet.
Many teams this season had befallen this same fate — stay in the game for a little bit, then be blown away by the sheer athleticism and God-given talent this Duke team has on display. Barrett and fellow freshmen McDonald’s All-Americans Cam Reddish and Tre Jones are mere footnotes, or foothills, to Mount Zion Williamson.
Not Michigan State. Not Sunday.
Izzo called timeout to try to stem the tide.
“You guys know I don’t call many,” Izzo said after the game.
What was said during that timeout? Accounts differ.
“None of us were worried,” Goins said. “We’ve been here before, and that’s what we kinda said in the huddle. We’ve been there, done that. We talked about what we messed up and corrected it.”
Junior forward Nick Ward was maybe more realistic about the odds facing the Spartans in that moment.
“Damn,” Ward said. “It happened, but we didn’t lose hope.”
Junior guard and team captain Joshua Langford, out for the season with a left foot injury, took a more high-minded approach in the huddle.
“When the emotions of the game die down, it’s just basketball,” Langford said he told his teammates.
Whatever was said, and by whom, the timeout worked.
Williamson picked up his second foul at the 4:52 mark, and sat for two minutes, during which time Winston found a home in the paint vacated by the consensus National Player of the Year.
“I saw him get two fouls early,” Winston said. “I was like, that’s definitely better. That helps a little bit.”
Winston scored or assisted on every basket as MSU closed the half on a 13-0 run to take a 34-30 lead into the locker room.
“I didn’t let them speed me up,” Winston said. “I didn't let them rush me, I kept my composure, made good looks and stuff like that.”
The second half went back and forth, with neither team leading by more than six at any point before the eventual one-point margin. There was only one time all game when MSU looked in danger of falling out of it against the top-seeded Blue Devils, and the Spartans had their response.
“This team is never gonna just shut it down, never gonna fold under pressure,” freshman forward Aaron Henry said. “We’re gonna apply the pressure.”