Cassius Winston sat in front of reporters at the Big Ten Tournament last March and declared he wanted a rematch with Michigan. Earlier that season, the Wolverines had gone into East Lansing unranked and knocked off No. 4 Michigan State, while Winston finished with 11 points and four turnovers.
When Michigan beat Nebraska two hours after his comments, Winston got his wish. The result, though, was the same as it had been two months earlier.
The Wolverines, again, displayed their defensive dominance. Winston, again, managed just 11 points, as Zavier Simpson — the point guard Michigan recruited as its contingency plan — shone.
Ahead of the rivalry’s latest chapter, Winston was careful to avoid providing the Wolverines with any motivating soundbites, insisting that last year’s losses were not on his mind. But Sunday evening, as the clock ticked toward zero on Winston’s first win over Michigan as a starter, they were impossible to ignore.
“(My teammates) know the struggles I’ve had with this team before and know how big of a game this was for me,” Winston said, minutes after securing a 77-70 win. “And they were there for me the whole time. They wanted this just as bad as I did. We all wanted it really bad, for more reasons than just the game and it showed.”
And sure, his teammates may have wanted the win. But make no mistake: This was the Cassius Winston show.
It was Winston who wriggled around the Wolverines’ defense to finish with 27 points and eight assists. It was Winston who, when Michigan made a desperate attempt to claw back into the game, iced the win with six consecutive free throws. It was Winston who was showered with “MVP” chants from a vocal row of Spartans fans atop section 214. And, at the end of it all, it was Winston who dribbled out the clock, mobbed by a flurry of teammates when that elusive buzzer finally sounded.
“We were just screaming and stuff, just pushing him,” said freshman forward Thomas Kithier. “We were just so happy. Especially the way Cassius has played. He played his heart out and he deserves it.”
Lounging back at his temporary locker beneath the Crisler Center while a horde of TV cameras and iPhones crowded his face, Winston himself did not carry the expressions of a man who had just conquered his biggest demon.
Even while remembering the celebratory final moments, he didn’t crack a smile. His comments alternated deflected praise with a focus on Indiana, Michigan State’s next opponent. When asked where this ranks among the biggest wins of his career, he merely said, “It’s up there” and re-emphasized the importance of winning a conference title.
But beneath it all, there was an air of relaxed satisfaction that can only come after dumping a proverbial monkey off one’s back.
“When it was all said and done,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, “probably the guy who's been scrutinized the most by me and you, Cassius Winston, was unbelievable.”
There’s a reason that Izzo, holder of 10 wins in Ann Arbor, called this his biggest ever win at the Crisler Center. A loss could have been catastrophic for his team’s psyche — its fourth in a row against Michigan, a confirmation that the state’s basketball hierarchy had been flipped.
Thanks to Winston, those worries never materialized. Because each time the Wolverines threatened to make them reality, he responded in a way he was unable to a year ago — whether that be with a floater, jump shot or perfectly placed assist.
“What’s cool for me is it's been a process here,” Izzo said. “… He’s had the process, tough freshman year, very good sophomore year, now he's having, so far, a great junior year.”
And sure, the difference between “very good” and “great” comes in the form of 6.3 extra points and .5 extra assists per game. But more importantly, it comes in the form of a win over Michigan.