College Sports

How Michigan State survived injury, departures to become Duke’s unlikely giant-slayer

Duke falls to Michigan State in NCAA Elite 8 action

Check out photos from Duke's Elite 8 game against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament March 31, 2019.
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Check out photos from Duke's Elite 8 game against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament March 31, 2019.

On paper, this never looked like it was going to be one of Tom Izzo’s best teams. The Michigan State Spartans flamed out in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, then Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. both left early to become lottery picks in the NBA Draft.

Still, Izzo got Michigan State off to a strong start and perennial place in the top 10, riding the dynamic backcourt of Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford until Langford went down with a mysterious foot injury in the final game of 2018. The Spartans lost three in a row without Langford in January and February, and in the middle of the losing streak ruled out the guard for the season.

On Sunday in Washington, a makeshift Michigan State roster scored the biggest win of March Madness, toppling the No. 1-seed Duke Blue Devils, 68-67, to advance to the Final Four out of the East region.

Winston, the lone healthy McDonald’s All-American for the No. 2-seed Spartans, led the way with 20 points and 10 assists, but Michigan State took down Duke because of Izzo’s penchant for player development.

Kenny Goins, a former walk-on, chipped in 10 points and nine rebounds, and hit the biggest shot of the game. Fellow forward Xavier Tillman, who wasn’t a top-100 prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2017, did his best Zion Williamson impression, scoring 19 points, grabbing nine rebounds and flushing down the best dunk of the game.

There was no easy solution to slow down Williamson — the All-American power forward still put up a ridiculous stat line with 24 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and two assists — but Tillman could at least match him. The sophomore went to the bench with his fourth foul with 17:46 left in the game and sat there for about seven minutes.

After he returned to play out the stretch, Williamson only made two more shots. Tillman hit the same amount in the last 4:13 alone, first with his and-one dunk over forward Javin DeLaurier, then on an alley-oop from Winston with 1:21 to go to cut the Blue Devils’ lead to 66-65.

The Spartans made a stop on the other end, then Tillman found Goins for the go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left.

Tillman fouled out on Michigan State’s next defensive position while trying to stop a drive from R.J. Barrett and the All-American shooting guard went 1 of 2 at the free-throw line.

There was only one obvious choice to ice the game for the Spartans, though. Winston, an All-American guard this season, carried Michigan State to its status as a No. 2 seed and paced the Spartans’ offense with his double-double at Capital One Arena to set up a meeting with the No. 3-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The junior streaked down the left sideline with five seconds left. In the offseason, Duke assembled perhaps the greatest recruiting class in history with four of the top 15 prospects in the Class of 2018, but none of them could catch up to Winston as he ran to the baseline and the seconds ticked away, Williamson just a few steps behind him the whole time.

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