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Experience Trumps Talent as Michigan State Seizes Its Moment Against Duke

Michigan State's experienced group waited for its opportunity and did not misfire, sending star-studded Duke home and giving arguably Tom Izzo's toughest team yet a once-in-a-lifetime chance at reaching college basketball's mountaintop.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the wrong decision and the right one, unscripted but years in the making. Kenny Goins was not supposed to shoot, but he was also not supposed to be here, on the floor in the final minute of an Elite Eight game against Duke, or really, playing meaningful minutes at all for Michigan State. Goins was a walk-on. This is his fifth year. This was his moment.

The winning play was probably more intricate than anything Duke ran all night, but Michigan State runs various versions of it all the time. You can do that when your guys have been around a while. Sophomore Xavier Tillman had the ball. Junior Cassius Winston set a pin-down screen, freeing Goins. Tillman passed to Goins. Winston then tried to set a back screen for Tillman. Goins was supposed to lob to Tillman or dump off to Winston; as MSU assistant coach Dane Fife said later, “Nobody said, ‘Kenny, if you’re open, shoot it’ in the huddle.”

Fife didn’t even realize Goins had fired until the ball was in the air. He just knew Winston had set a fantastic pin-down.

But on whom?

“I’m not even sure,” Fife said. “I’m really not.”

It was a kid named Zion Williamson. In the final minute of the final Elite Eight game, somebody finally stopped paying attention to him.

As Williamson lunged toward Goins—a phenom chasing an afterthought—Duke led 66–65. Williamson had already blocked one of Goins’s three-point attempts from out of nowhere, in one of those ridiculous combinations of athleticism and intelligence that we have never quite seen in college basketball but see all the time from Zion.

This time, Goins got the shot off. He had earned a scholarship in his second year on campus, real minutes in his third, and this season, his fifth at Michigan State, he became both a gym rat and a key cog. This is how college basketball is supposed to work for the non-freak portion of the human population.

Fife saw that Goins’s shot had serious rotation, which the coach took as a good sign. It went in.

Michigan State’s program beat Duke’s stars, 68–67, in a game that belongs in the jewelry box alongside the other three extraordinary regional finals this weekend. The differences between the teams were not that the Spartans cared more and or were coached better. It was that their bonds were deeper and they were coached for longer.

Williamson had a series of spectacular plays but also picked up two impetuous-freshman fouls in the first half. When Duke needed points late in the game, it tried dumping it in to Zion, but two of those entry passes ended up in Michigan State’s hands.

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Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said afterward that “I’m not sure this team could get here.” He meant earlier this season, when the Spartans were staggering and two of their most talented players, Josh Langford and Nick Ward, were injured. By the time this tournament started, Izzo believed. He had seen enough. Enough shot-making. Enough toughness. Enough character.

Enough Cassius Winston. The junior guard is reminiscent of another former Spartan, Le’Veon Bell, in how he slowly finds seams in a defense. He needed 23 shots to score 20 points Sunday, and there were times when he looked overmatched against Duke’s overwhelming athleticism. But he did not flinch.

As Fife said, “You think Cassius Winston is worried about who he’s playing?” Winston finished with 10 assists and just one turnover, and earned the region’s Most Outstanding Player Award.

“Mentally,” Izzo said, “we might be tougher than any team I’ve had.”

The Spartans needed to be. The talent difference in this game was stark. Duke blocked nine shots. Michigan State only got to the free throw line six times. But Michigan State was smarter, crisper and completely unfazed, particularly when Duke made a first-half run that looked like it might blow the game open.

Give both of these teams another month alone in the gym with their coaching staffs, and Duke probably wins this game by 10 or more. But that’s not how this works. Duke didn’t hold a lot of full-length, full-contact practices after New Year’s, because the ACC schedule is too tight. Krzyzewski and his staff taught as much as they reasonably could without stifling Duke’s incredible individual talent.

Now Zion, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are presumably leaving, and Tre Jones, who was crying into his jersey after this ended, may join them.

Only two teams have really won a championship with a group of one-and-done stars: Duke in 2015, and Kentucky in 2012. A few others, including this Duke team, came close. The obstacles to winning this way can come in myriad forms: egos, disinterest, lack of accountability or cohesion. These Blue Devils did not have any of those problems. What they faced, and what every team like them faces, was a compressed timeframe.

Izzo discovered this a year ago, when a team led by lottery picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. never quite figured out how to think like a champion.

This Michigan State team is more like Izzo’s previous seven Final Four teams, with one college star (Winston), a couple other potential pros, and a sense, for everybody, that they will never get a better chance to do something special in basketball than they have right now.

Langford and Ward were supposed to be this team’s leading scorers. Instead, the injured Langford spent the final minutes on the bench, praying. Ward saw his minutes reduced but didn’t seem to mind. When the regional championship trophy returned to the Michigan State locker room Sunday night, it was not being carried by Winston or Izzo or even Kenny Goins. It was in the hands of Nick Ward, and it belonged to all of them.