WASHINGTON – Michigan State’s players were chasing their do-everything point guard, Cassius Winston, across the floor, that first realization that it had really happened, a 68-67 upset of Duke that had sent them to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Meantime, Blue Devils point guard and Apple Valley native Tre Jones was doubled over on the court, sobbing, with two teammates trying to console him before a stunned announced crowd of 20,125 on Sunday at Capital One Arena in the East Region final.
Duke led 66-63 by three points late, but Winston dished to Xavier Tillman for a wide-open layup with 1 minute, 21 seconds left, and then Kenny Goins drilled a go-ahead three pointer with 34 seconds remaining.
Duke’s RJ Barrett went to the foul line with 5.2 seconds left, needing two points to tie, but missed his first attempt before accidentally making the second. Michigan State sealed it with one last inbounds pass to Winston, who escaped everyone, running out the clock and starting the celebration.
“It was shocking,” Winston said. “I was like, ‘This is really happening.’ It was a crazy moment.”
That shock had the reverse effect on Duke, especially the team’s four freshmen — Jones, Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish — who all could leave and become first-round NBA draft picks.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gathered his team and kept his message brief.
“He just told us he was proud of us,” Jones said, sitting at his locker, in words barely louder than a whisper. “Nothing he says right now would make us feel better, so he didn’t keep it long at all.”
Shortly after saying this, Jones looked straight down and buried his head in a white towel, sobbing some more, before composing himself and continuing to take reporters’ questions.
Duke (32-6) was this NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The Blue Devils narrowly escaped upsets by Central Florida and Virginia Tech in the previous two rounds and had no reason to think this would end any differently.
Williamson had a game-high 24 points and 14 rebounds and Barrett added 21 points, but the Blue Devils committed 17 turnovers, compared to only seven for Michigan State.
“I thought they played older than we did,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But that’s happened to us — we are young. Especially in the first half, I thought we were not ourselves. And we wanted it too much.
“I spent most of the first half not X’ing and O’ing, but just, ‘Settle down. And just be you.’ ”
Michigan State (32-6) had a rough start, too. This matchup between the top two seeds in the East Region was viewed nationally as one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the tournament.
“My legs were a little jellowy,” said Spartans senior guard Matt McQuaid, who missed two early free throws even though he’s an 85.2 percent shooter from the line.
But Michigan State’s execution shined through in the end.
Winston finished with 20 points and 10 assists, outdueling Jones, who had four points, five assists and one turnover after scoring a career-high 22 in the win over Virginia Tech.
“Tre was playing like crazy on [defense against Winston],” Krzyzewski said. “And I was impressed just with how well [Winston] was able to not just handle the pressure but still run his team. Like, he had as good a performance as any player has had against us.”
Winston was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player. He said it helped getting some pregame encouragement from former Michigan State star Magic Johnson.
“It’s not just Magic,” Winston said. “There’s a lot of guys that came back. Mateen [Cleaves] was here, Charlie Bell was here. They’re still pushing for us, still supporting us.”
On this night, they were celebrating Michigan State’s eighth trip to the Final Four under Izzo. Their coach also improved to 2-11 for his career against Krzyzewski, who remains tied with John Wooden as the career leader in Final Four appearances, with 12.
“First of all, I’m not at his level yet,” Izzo said. “When you look at the [five NCAA] championships he’s won, the number of games he’s won. But I am in his arena, sort of.”