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Cassius Winston-led Michigan State survives Hawkeyes' upset bid

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The reigning Big Ten Conference player of the year wasn’t going to pass the torch without a fight.

Cassius Winston brought No. 24 Michigan State and the Breslin Center to life Tuesday night, just when it looked like Luka Garza and No. 17 Iowa were ready for perhaps their magical season's defining moment.

Winston scored 19 of his 20 points in the second half and dished out nine assists to delight the league's most raucous arena with a 78-70 Spartans win. Michigan State's Rocket Watts tied his career high with 21 points, and Aaron Henry added 17 to crush Iowa's upset bid.

“(Winston) hit a couple shots early (in the second half). They really started running some stuff for him … and that takes a lot of attention," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "So yeah, he got loose. But it also created opportunities for Henry and Rocket.”

This was a fantastic display of basketball, with the league’s only game of the night getting an ESPN2 showcase stage to feature arguably two of the best players in the college game.

Winston, held to one first-half point, rattled off four 3-pointers without a miss in the opening stages of the second half, helping to turn a 10-point Michigan State deficit into a 53-51 lead. Breslin was going bonkers.

Garza played his heart out and barely left the floor, only exiting for 19 brief seconds in the first half for a few quick breaths in the final minute. He played 39:36 of a possible 40 minutes. The Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-11 big man showed why he will be named the league’s 2020 player of the year sometime in March, even as he was consistently double-teamed and knocked to the floor.

“We played well enough to win," Garza said. "But it got away from us at the end.”

Garza continued to provide answers for the Hawkeyes, and so did teammates like Bakari Evelyn, Ryan Kriener and Connor McCaffery. Iowa had regained a 60-56 edge with 6:57 to go, and what Hawkeye fan wouldn’t have taken that deal before tip-off? The short-handed Hawkeyes entered as 8½-point underdogs against a desperate team that had lost two straight at home.

Michigan State's Malik Hall, right and Iowa's Luka Garza (55) and Michigan State's Thomas Kithier, left, vie for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

But Michigan State (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) did its usual Michigan State things. Its Big Ten-best defense locked down the Hawkeyes (19-9, 10-7) in the closing minutes. Iowa scored just one point in a span of 4:14 after taking that 60-56 lead. And the Spartans shot 60% from the floor (15-for-25) after halftime, compared to Iowa's 36% (12-for-33). 

“We’ll review the film and make sure that when we’re in this position again," Garza said, "and we’ve got a team like this on the ropes in their building, we take care of that.”

Garza finished with 20 points (his 13th straight game with 20-plus) to go with nine rebounds and three assists. Kriener was terrific, too, despite foul trouble. The senior big man finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. Connor McCaffery had 11 points and seven assists. 

Iowa’s first-half defensive intensity was reminiscent of the 2016 win here.

The Hawkeyes four years ago held Sparty to 59 points in what was a stirring 17-point win. On Tuesday, Iowa showed determination minus shooting guard CJ Fredrick, who missed a third straight game with a right ankle injury.

Cordell Pemsl was a great example of that. It was his hustle play along the sideline to capture a loose rebound that drew Xavier Tillman’s second foul, just 4 minutes, 48 seconds in the first half. The Spartans’ 6-foot-8 force didn’t return until after halftime.

The Hawkeyes held a 33-27 halftime lead, largely by well-connected defense that was also present in the 58-55 road win at Minnesota two Sundays ago. Michigan State, the second-best shooting team in the Big Ten, was held to 41% from the floor with six turnovers. Winston was held to a single point. 

But Tillman's presence in the second half and Michigan State's strong finish was too much.

“The game was really in the balance," Kriener said. "Michigan State can really ramp up their defense at times, and they did that. I thought we had control of the game most of the game.”

Fran McCaffery is not down on Joe Wieskamp.

As the coach said afterward, nobody feels worse than Wieskamp that he finished with four points on 1-of-8 shooting in 34 minutes. The sophomore is now an uncharacteristic 6-for-27 from the floor over his past three games, all coinciding with Fredrick's absence.

“He struggled shooting and scoring, yeah," McCaffery said. "In fairness to him, he didn’t hunt shots. He took good shots that were open. He was defended well.

"He kept playing D, he kept getting on the glass. He’s a team guy. I feel bad that a couple of those open shots didn’t go in for him. Nobody feels worse than he does.”

Penn State comes to town next.

The belief is that Fredrick returns from what will be a 16-day stretch between games for the 11 a.m. Saturday showdown. That game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is sold out and — on the last day of February — should be a good reflection of what the Hawkeyes have in store for March.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.