CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Michigan State men’s basketball was searching for a finish. Three straight losses, a series of dismal starts on the road, and a general sense of dread enveloped the program. Coach Tom Izzo joked pregame that he was going to jump out of a casket since so many had pronounced the Spartans dead.
A 20-point second-half lead had vanished. Star point guard Cassius Winston was reduced to a spectator for much of the night, saddled with foul trouble.
As Winston drove to the rim, trailing 69-68 in the dying seconds, the momentum of the season hung in the balance. His lay-in didn’t hit the rim, bouncing high off the glass.
Then out of the clouds came junior forward Xavier Tillman, ripping the ball through the net with 6.6 seconds remaining.
For Tillman, whose recent struggles included a penchant for missed layups against Wisconsin and Indiana, not needing the help of the glass on the defining play was poetic.
“I’m so proud of Xavier,” Izzo said. “We’ve missed a bunch of layups and he’s missed them and it’s cost us two or three games. As the players said to him in the locker room, he left no doubt on the layup this time.”
According to sources inside the program, Tillman compared himself to a certain member of NBA royalty postgame due to the ferocity of his finish.
“He said he was LeBron when he came in the locker room,” sophomore forward Aaron Henry said. “That’s LeBron Tillman right there.”
Winston rejected a ball screen from Tillman and drove left on Illinois’ Trent Frazier. Dosunmu and Illini center Kofi Cockburn all converged on Winston, leaving Tillman alone on the weak side, but Izzo said that wasn’t the first read on the final play.
“We tried to get (Henry) in the post, we tried to get (Winston) off a double,” Izzo said. “I said if it breaks down, (Winston) is gonna have to get it and penetrate and get it off the board. And that’s what he did. Really, there were two parts before it that didn’t work, and then it was put in Cassius’ hands.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Frazier erred in allowing Winston leverage toward the basket, saying in those situations, the Illini are taught to switch all effective ball screens.
“Cassius was kind of in-and-out, and got (Frazier) a little off-balance, and when that happens, it’s supposed to be an automatic switch,” Underwood said. “(Cockburn) would’ve taken Cassius and (Frazier) slides and takes Tillman … and instead both went on the ball.”
Tillman said he expected the attention Winston drew on the play.
“That’s the Big Ten player of the Year, you gotta put everyone on him,” Tillman said. “It was either three players or five players I saw at the rim. I saw everybody. So I was thinking, ‘OK, nobody’s gonna cut me out,’ and then when he shot it, I saw it was released really high off the glass, so I was like, ‘OK, I can go get it.’”
Opinions were split over whether Winston’s attempt, which went down as a missed shot, was more of a purposeful pass, but the senior cleared it up.
“It definitely was a shot,” Winston said. “I wish I was that nice. That’d be sweet … I knew I had a lot of people on me, so I knew to try to get it on the glass, get it on the rim. Because I knew (Cockburn) was gonna try to block it, I knew the guards were gonna try to block it behind him, so my best chance is for me to get it on the rim and have something happen.”
Something happened, and the Spartans jumped out of the casket, improving to 17-8 overall and 9-5 in-conference, two games behind first-place Maryland, who visits the Breslin Center Saturday (6 p.m./ESPN).