WASHINGTON D.C. — With 4.3 seconds remaining, Xavier Tillman stood at the right corner of Duke's baseline and gave a nod to Cassius Winston.
Winston knew what to do. Eliminate any chance of a turnover by catching Tillman's inbound lob over the shoulder and let time expire. And that's how second-seeded Michigan State survived the 68-67 win over No. 1 Duke on Sunday at Capital One Arena in the NCAA Tournament East Region finals.
As important as that play was, Tillman, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, a pair of blocks and three steals, helped hold Duke freshman standout Zion Williamson to 24 points and 14 rebounds. Much of Williamson's stat line came when Tillman was on the bench in foul trouble.
But when on the floor?
"That was the matchup we felt we had to have," said MSU coach Tom Izzo, who's going to his eighth Final Four with the Spartans.
Williamson, considered by many to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, went 10-for-19 from the field and 2-of-6 on 3-pointers. Tillman said after the game the plan was to force as many of Williamson's shots on the perimeter, but also limit the 6-foot, 8-inch, 280-pound Williamson's presence inside.
"Just not to let him do his tendency," Tillman said during the postgame press conference. He was unavailable in the locker room due to taking a random drug test, according to an MSU spokesperson. "He's a heavy right-shoulder guy. 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."
Williamson admitted Tillman's defense was likely the difference in the outcome.
"He played very physical," Williamson said of Tillman. "On offense, he was setting great screens, slipping at the perfect time. He played a very-high IQ game while being physical. And he played a great game. They brought the double-teams at the right moments. They didn’t force it. That’s just Michigan State. They have a winning history."
On back-to-back possessions midway through the second half, Tillman was keen on passes intended for Williamson. On both tries, Tillman read the pass, stuck out a hand, and forced turnovers.
By game's end, the Spartans scored 24 points on 17 Duke turnovers.
"He steals the ball twice and we’re like, 'OK. We can do this,'" forward Nick Ward said. "We just had to do execute and make the shot."
Since sliding into the starting rotation after Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand on Feb. 17, the 6-foot, 8-inch Tillman is averaging 13.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.8 blocks per game.
And despite the heroics of Winston, freshman guard Aaron Henry thought Tillman was the player of the game.
"Absolutely, without a doubt," Henry said. "He does – the stats he puts up have been good, but it’s the intangible things that you don’t see. The stops that don’t get recorded on paper, the tips, the rebounds, running the floor, the hockey assists, just everything he’s done. He’s been overlooked, I think, for a long time."