WASHINGTON — For an entire season, the whole college basketball world was on Duke’s trail. Everything the Blue Devils did, down to the time their star player’s sneaker exploded during a game, was followed intensely. At the end, though, it was Duke that was doing the chasing, hopelessly so.
There was nothing that the celebrated overall No. 1 seed could do but run after Michigan State’s Cassius Winston as he dribbled the final seconds off the clock. Duke’s players never did catch him and could only watch the Spartans celebrate the 68-67 victory that earned them a trip to the Final Four.
It also presumably ended the brief college careers of stellar freshman Zion Williamson and several outstanding classmates, who are expected to jump right into the NBA Draft.
“It was shocking. I knew I was going to get fouled. I was preparing my mind to knock down some free throws. But I got the ball and got away,” said Winston, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional and named by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as the best guard to have played against the Blue Devils this season. “And I was, like, ‘I’m about to dribble it out, and this is really happening.’ It was crazy. It was a crazy moment.”
Winston always seemed a step ahead of the highly regarded opponent despite the stellar game by Williamson (24 points, 14 rebounds). The junior point guard played all 40 minutes, had 20 points and 10 assists, and committed only one turnover. So it was both good strategy and fitting that he was the one who raced upcourt at the finish.
Duke (32-6) tried fouling once but was not close to the bonus situation, so it could not even send Winston to the line. All it could do was assemble the congratulatory handshake line and say goodbye to a season that made Williamson a national celebrity (before and after he injured a knee when his Nike sneaker gave out against North Carolina).
“Hats off to them,’’ Williamson said. “They played a great game. And Winston, he took over.”
Michigan State (32-6) advanced through an intense, back-and-forth game that seemed worthy of a national championship game. The Spartans, who will play Texas Tech in Minneapolis on Saturday after Auburn faces Virginia, made elite-level plays. None was more pivotal than the three-pointer that coach Tom Izzo set up for graduate student Kenny Goins with 34 seconds left. It went in, turning a one-point deficit into a 68-66 lead.
“We ran it earlier and it didn’t work. We went back to it. Coach said, ‘It’s going to be open,’ ” Goins said. “As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was good. I was kind of planning my celebration already, but I knew I had to get back on defense.”
Heralded freshman RJ Barrett, who made key plays in Duke’s previous two cliffhangers, missed a three-pointer and the front end of a potential tying two-shot free-throw opportunity. “I tried to miss the second one and it’s funny that it went in,” he said.
After that, there were only five seconds left, and barring a gaffe by Michigan State, Duke had no recourse. But second-seeded Michigan State was not in gaffe mode. This was the Spartans’ day, starting with a locker room pep talk from former Spartan Magic Johnson to the moment they cut down the nets to the postgame news conference at which Izzo joked about doubling his win total against Krzyzewski (his record versus Duke is 2-11).
“We were the faster team. We maybe were the smarter team tonight,” Winston said. “They were a good team, too. It was a battle the whole night, and at the end, we made some winning plays. That’s what it’s all about this time of year.”