Sunday, September 20, 2020

Great moments in MSU sports history: Spartans down Duke in Elite Eight

40 minutes from Cassius Winston and a Kenny Goins three helped the Spartans slay the giant

March 25, 2020
Then-freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) celebrates during the game against Duke at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Blue Devils, 68-67. The Spartans are the East Regional Winners and are headed to the Final Four. Photo by Annie Barker. Design by Daena Faustino.
Then-freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) celebrates during the game against Duke at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Blue Devils, 68-67. The Spartans are the East Regional Winners and are headed to the Final Four. Photo by Annie Barker. Design by Daena Faustino. —

Michigan State has canceled all sports activities as our community deals with the COVID-19 crisis. In a time when sports have ceased, The State News is looking back at great moments in Michigan State sports history. Soon, we’ll be back to a world with sports, but for now, the past will have to do.

Today, we’ll be looking at the 2019 Elite Eight basketball game between No. 2-seed Michigan State and No. 1-seeded Duke.

We'll be compiling these moments into a bracket with the MSU community voting on the best one, starting on April 1, via Twitter.

Date: March 31, 2019.

Venue: Capital One Arena, Washington D.C.

Matchup: No. 2-seeded Michigan State vs. No. 1-seeded Duke.

The background: Last Sunday would’ve been Selection Sunday, the Spartans were on pace for a three-seed or higher, dependent on the Big Ten Tournament that was canceled. Hopes were high for a Spartan team led by senior Cassius Winston. It may go down as one of the biggest what-ifs in Spartan history.

But Winston and his senior class didn’t go down without leaving their mark in history. Last year’s Elite Eight made sure of that.

Last year around this time, the Spartans, fresh off a Big Ten regular season championship and a Big Ten Tournament championship, had hopes of a No.1-seed bid heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, the Spartans were placed as a two-seed, in the same bracket as what most called the best team in the country.

The Duke Blue Devils.

Duke was led by freshman forward Zion Williamson, a household name in sports since his high school years and future No. 1 draft pick to the New Orleans Pelicans. 

Accompanying Williamson were two other freshman lottery picks, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish and freshman guard Tre Jones, who dismantled Michigan State at the Breslin Center the next season.

It was a bad draw for the Spartans, but they couldn’t be counted out.

Freshman Aaron Henry, sophomore Xavier Tillman, juniors Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, and seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. They had the pieces to be something special.

Three double-digit wins against Bradley, Minnesota and LSU later, the stage was set for Winston’s Spartans to take their shot at arguably the best freshman class ever.

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The game: This game will be remembered for numerous reasons, from the hype behind it to Winston playing every minute. But everything in this game boils down to the final minutes. 

One shot by senior forward Kenny Goins over the long stretch of Zion Williamson.

A day earlier, Goins interrupted Winston during his press conference. He asked him who he would want to pass the ball to with the game on the line.

His answer wasn't Kenny Goins.

Jump forward a day and nearly two periods, Winston wouldn't have the ball in his hands and his pick to take the shot wouldn't be taking it.

With 36 seconds left, Tillman had the ball in his hands. He dumped the ball into Goins hands, near the left wing and a few steps back from the three-point line.

He pulls up for three, an open look, but barely getting the ball off and past Williamson’s fingers.

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Swish.

The rest is history.

Barrett misses his first free throw, then tries to intentionally miss the second, but makes it. The Spartans get the ball back with five seconds left, up one.

Tillman inbounds the ball to Winston and he escapes the Duke defenders, sprinting away from the players and running away with the win.

On Mar. 31, 2019, the Spartans were giant-slayers.

The aftermath:

The victory that shook college basketball was short-lived. The Spartans fell to Texas Tech in the Final Four.

Both seniors on the 2019 Final Four team, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, now play overseas.

Junior forward Nick Ward declared for the draft after the season and now plays in the G-League for the Atlanta Hawks affiliate team.

With Winston and junior forward Xavier Tillman at the helm, a regular season Big Ten Championship clinched and momentum going into the postseason, a potential return was in the cards.

But we will never know.

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