The No. 9 Michigan State Spartans finished their regular season with an exclamation point by defeating the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines 75-63 Saturday night in front of their raucous fans at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
The final score was lopsided in favor of the Spartans, but Michigan State had to overcome a 12-point first-half deficit—the largest lead lost by the Wolverines this season.
The rivals met on Feb. 24 at Michigan, and the Spartans won 77-70. With this victory, the Spartans earned a share of the regular-season Big Ten title with Purdue. It marks the first time in Michigan-Michigan State history that the conference championship was at stake on the season's final day, per STATS (h/t CBSSports.com).
The Spartans will also be the No. 1 seed in next week's Big Ten tournament.
Spartans junior guard Cassius Winston overcame a shaky start to lead all scorers with 23 points and also chipped in seven assists. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman came up huge in Nick Ward's absence with 17 points and five blocks.
Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis battled foul trouble throughout the game. Before ultimately fouling out with 5:10 left to go in the game, the freshman had 20 points and four rebounds. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole scored 15 points for the Wolverines.
Ahead of the game, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo suggested it may be the biggest installment yet in this storied rivalry, and in the end, his squad delivered.
Cassius Winston Is the March Leader MSU Needs
Winston had just seven points at halftime, and things looked bleak for Michigan State. However, the second half proved why this team goes as Winston goes.
ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath relayed on the broadcast that, with 10:47 left in the second half, Winston told his team, "We are taking this lead and never looking back."
According to McGrath, associate head coach Dane Fife said the Spartans turned the game on its head "all because of Cassius." Winston's three-pointer 30 seconds later gave the Spartans a 53-50 lead, and they never trailed again.
Last month, Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press asked Tillman who the Big Ten Player of the Year should be. His answer? "Cassius Winston."
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg explained to Solari why Tillman is right:
"Right now, in my opinion, (Winston) is the player of the year in the conference and he's gotta be in the conversation for player of the year in the country right now. ... Especially with Josh (Langford) out, what he's being asked to do with the amount of minutes he's being asked to play, his efficiency, his productivity, his assists, his taking better care of the basketball. He's just doing anything and everything a coach could want from him."
Immediately after Saturday night's regular-season finale, Izzo was emotional while talking to McGrath. When asked why he was crying, he said: "Hey, hell of a year. Hell of a year. Proud of my guys! Happy for you guys! Happy for Cassius!"
Should Winston take home Big Ten Player of the Year, he will join an illustrious list of stars who have won it under Izzo such as Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green.
Izzo collected his second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title and ninth overall Saturday night, but with Winston leading this team, he could end this season with his second national championship.
Ignas Brazdeikis Will Dictate Michigan's Title Hopes
Michigan's loss was a case study in Ignas Brazdeikis' importance.
The freshman phenom started on fire with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field. Midway through the first half, Brazdeikis had as many points as Michigan State. Michigan began to crumble once Brazdeikis notched his second personal foul 10 minutes before halftime, though. He was on the verge of, as Chris Vannini of The Athletic described it, a Nik Stauskas or Moe Wagner-type performance before his foul trouble.
His aggressive, confident approach was forced to turn conservative, and Michigan State took advantage.
The biggest disparity between the teams was in rebounding. Michigan State owned Michigan on the boards: 35-16 defensively and 11-4 offensively. That, at least in part, has to be attributed to Brazdeikis' limited approach.
Moving into the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament, Michigan needs its versatile big man on the court more.
Both teams will participate in the Big Ten tournament, which begins March 13 at the United Center in Chicago. As the No. 1 seed, Michigan State has a double-bye and won't start play until March 15.