Tom Izzo had been talking for close to an hour Saturday night, killing time until he went to meet with his players to make last-minute plans for their game Sunday in the East Region final against Duke.
Earlier in the day, at the NCAA’s dreary, mandatory off-day news conference, Izzo said all the right things about Zion Williamson and how hard he would be to guard. “I’d like to have Khalil Mack to try to stop him,” he said, referring to the Chicago Bears’ monstrous pass rusher. He said all the right things about Mike Krzyzewski and how much he respected Duke.
Now, though, as he stood up to leave Saturday night, he smiled.
“You know what?” he said. “Everything I said about them is true, but we’ve got a chance. I’m telling you, we’ve got a chance — a real chance.”
If there are two things Izzo knows cold, they are basketball and his Michigan State Spartans. That’s why, as thrilled as Izzo was Sunday evening when the clock ran out on his team’s 68-67 victory over the No. 1 overall seed Blue Devils, he wasn’t surprised.
Through the roller-coaster ride that was this souped-up game, he had known it all along: His team had a chance — more than a chance. Even with Duke up 66-63 with 1:33 to go, the Spartans knew they could win.
The game came down to two key possessions. On the first, Izzo during a timeout drew up a perfect give-and-go play that allowed Cassius Winston, the game’s most dominant player, to slip a pass to Xavier Tillman, who cut the margin to 66-65 with 1:17 to go.
Then, after a wild miss by Duke’s RJ Barrett, Izzo called a timeout again. This time, Tillman reversed the ball to Kenny Goins, and in a split second the beauty of college basketball came into focus.
Goins is a fifth-year senior who turned down mid-major Division I offers to walk on at Michigan State. According to Izzo’s assistants, no one gets yelled at by Izzo more.
On Friday night, when Goins missed his first six shots against LSU, Izzo turned repeatedly to assistant Dane Fife, screaming, “What is wrong with your boy?”
Fife had no answer to that one, except to say — under his breath — “He’s Wojcik’s boy.”
That would be assistant Doug Wojcik, who has spent countless hours with Goins, working on his shooting and overall game. Goins averaged a career high 8.1 points this season but became an important part of the Izzo rebounding machine, averaging nine per game.
But as the ball swung to him Sunday evening, he had hit 3 of 11 shots against Duke and was 5 for 21 for the weekend at Capital One Arena. He also was wide open. Too late, Williamson realized Goins was all alone. He charged at Goins, hand up, hoping to distract him.
He didn’t. Goins caught it calmly and swished a three-pointer with 35 seconds left for a 68-66 lead. Williamson, who finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, will be the first pick in the NBA draft come June.
Goins isn’t going to be drafted, and if he plays basketball next season, it almost certainly will be overseas or in the G League. But this was his moment — not Williamson’s.
The game wasn’t actually over, but, as it turned out, it was.
Barrett, another top-five draft pick in a couple of months, badly missed a three, then got another chance when the rebound went out of bounds off the Spartans. He then got fouled driving to the basket but, needing to make both free throws with five seconds left, missed the first then accidentally made the second.
Ballgame. Old guys beat young guys. Winston, a junior, was hounded all night by Duke freshman defensive whiz Tre Jones but never blinked, finishing with 20 points, 10 assists and just one turnover.
Izzo told his players Saturday night that the key to beating the Blue Devils was simple: Punch them in the face. Attack them from the first minute and make everything hard. Wherever Williamson went, two defenders were sure to go. Often, when he recognized the double-team and tried to pass, it went astray; he had five turnovers, two fewer than the entire Michigan State team.
“I felt like I spent most of the first half not so much X-and-O’ing as trying to get my guys to settle down,” Krzyzewski said. “I felt as if they just wanted it too much.”
Or maybe they were just a little worn out mentally and emotionally. The Blue Devils were fortunate to be here: A potential game-winning shot for Central Florida rolled off the rim a week ago in the second round, and a game-tying layup at the buzzer clanked off the rim Friday night in the region semifinals against Virginia Tech.
In the end, Blue Devils ran out of lives. They also had come up against a team with more experience, one that had dealt with as much adversity as Duke had — and came out of it tougher. One perhaps better able to take a punch.
The victory means Izzo will be coaching in his eighth Final Four and his first since 2015 — when the Spartans lost to Duke in the semifinals. Sunday’s loss marked the second year in a row that Krzyzewski was denied a chance to surpass John Wooden and become the sole leader in Final Four trips with 13.
As always, he was gracious in defeat, telling Izzo during the postgame handshake that it was an honor to compete against his team. Izzo felt the same way, and truth be told, the win was extra special because his record against Krzyzewski before Sunday was 1-11.
But Izzo had a feeling about this team and about this game. He believed that, as great as Williamson is, Winston would be the most important player on the court. He thought his team could hurt Duke on the boards — and he was wrong about that; Duke won the rebounding battle 42-31. But the turnovers (seven for Michigan State, 17 for Duke) made up for that margin, leading to a 15-0 margin in fast-break points.
In the end, after all the twists and turns, lead changes and momentum swings, it came down to the fifth-year former walk-on lining up a shot against basketball’s Next One. The former walk-on won. A few minutes later, his team was cutting down the nets as the Next One and his teammates sat devastated in their locker room.
There was irony in “Wojcik’s boy” hitting the game-winning shot. Thirty-three years ago, Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team beat Navy, led by David Robinson, in a region final. Navy’s point guard was Doug Wojcik.
On Sunday, Robinson sat behind Duke’s bench, there to support son Justin — a Duke walk-on. And his former teammate’s “boy” sent Duke home.
Williamson and the one-and-done Duke freshmen will go on to make their millions. Michigan State will go on to Minneapolis.
Tom Izzo knew it all along.
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