EAST LANSING — Zavier Simpson sat on the bench with a blank stare. 33.9 seconds remained in Saturday’s game and Cassius Winston stood at midcourt, egging on the crowd as Aaron Henry walked to the free throw line to put the final touches on a championship season.
When the buzzer sounded, Michigan State beating Michigan 75-63 and winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, Winston found Spartan guard Foster Loyer and jumped straight into him. Simpson stood in the handshake line stoically, watching the scene unfold.
Two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, Winston got the best of Simpson, playing all 40 minutes, scoring 27 points and putting up eight assists, leading Michigan State to an upset win on the road. On Saturday, Winston threw a pass out of bounds as the Wolverines held a four-point lead with 15:30 to go and his face locked up like a kid getting bullied on the playground.
That was Winston’s third turnover, after a first half in which he scored just seven points, shot 1-of-5 from the field and sat eight minutes after getting into foul trouble. The seesaw in this one-on-one rivalry, it seemed, had tilted towards Simpson.
Five minutes later, it tilted right back.
With the game tied and the Breslin Center reaching a fever pitch, Winston pulled up for three. It banked in. That was Michigan State’s first lead of the game — a lead it would never squander, as Winston held the rest of the game in the palm of his hand.
“I believe it was a confidence thing,” said freshman guard David DeJulius. “First half, we kinda got under his skin a little bit. Big runs. And then second half, he kinda got a little groove going. When you let good players get a groove, sometimes it can be difficult to stop.”
Winston was all but impossible to stop. He found passing lanes through traps and impossible angles, hit floaters over the 7-foot Jon Teske and meandered his way into the lane at will, wreaking havoc. The Wolverines tried committing every defender they had to bumping Winston 30 feet from the basket, fully in desperation mode down by 10 with a minute to go. He kept the ball on a string, refusing to turn it over, then, from an impossible angle, hit a wide-open Matt McQuaid under the basket for a dunk.
By that point, Simpson had left the game for good. Winston didn’t want to sit, calling for the ball to dribble out the clock and, when Tom Izzo called timeout with 13 seconds left to honor the Spartans’ seniors, Winston stayed on the floor with the walk-ons and reserves.
He wanted to savor this win — one in his building, for his team, over his rival, for a championship he earned. Winston scored 16 points with four assists in the second half, playing all 20 minutes as the deciding force, capping a season that will likely culminate in a Big Ten Player of the Year award.
“Boy, like the reason he is, to me, the most valuable player in this league, is because when it was winning time, he made some winning plays,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “That’s what great players do. He did it, and I’m really proud of him.”
In the Michigan locker room, Simpson stood up and took the blame. “I gotta do better guys,” DeJulius recalled him saying. “It’s my fault.”
Simpson has been the Wolverines’ ethos, and the personal rivalry with Winston one of the linchpins by which his character has been constructed, for the last two seasons. He doesn’t get beat on defense, and certainly not by Winston.
And yet, twice in two weeks, that’s exactly what’s happened. Otherwise, it might be Michigan celebrating a Big Ten title right now.
“We didn’t do a good job of stopping (Winston) from turning the corner,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “Even Zavier being the defensive guy that he is, we couldn’t stop him from turning the corner. He turned the corner at will, anytime he wanted to on our bigs or our point guards.
“He was just a problem to deal with tonight. Best player on the floor.”