Michigan State freshman Cassius Winston works through pain
Impossible shot after impossible shot went down for Georgia’s stud freshman Anthony Edwards.
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LAHAINA >> Impossible shot after impossible shot went down for Georgia’s stud freshman Anthony Edwards. Fadeaways with the barest glimpse at the basket. Twenty-six-footers with a hand right in his face.
Edwards, a projected No. 1 NBA Draft pick on some prominent mock draft boards, rallied the Bulldogs from down 28 to within a basket of blue blood Michigan State in the final minutes of a consolation matchup at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
But the entire time, the Spartans’ floor general, Cassius Winston, was unfazed. He focused on chasing down rebounds and making the right pass — things he’s done so many times in his decorated career. And quietly, in the face of Edwards’ 37-point barrage, he supplied 28 to steady the ship and complete a 93-85 win a day after the All-America point guard was nearly silent in No. 3 Sparty’s stunning loss to Virginia Tech.
“Things like that that’s going to just kind of keep the game in your hands as much as possible,” Winston said. “Those are the types of things that we got to kind of shore up at the end.”
On the surface, on the postgame interview podium at the Lahaina Civic Center, getting back to basics was enough.
Underneath, it was anything but.
Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, a 19-year-old sophomore on Division III Albion (Mich.) College’s basketball team, was hit by a train and killed on Nov. 9. USA Today reported that Winston intentionally stepped in front of the train.
Winston has played in a daze in the days since, including the night after he heard the awful news. His coach, Tom Izzo, said that his listless seven-point performance Monday in the loss to VaTech was a product of grief and missed practice time.
“That wasn’t even half my player out there,” said Izzo, who just before lauded Virginia Tech. “Somewhere if one guy says I’m making an excuse, there’s going to be a fistfight, because the facts do matter. They matter. And the fact is the best friend in his life lost his life, and we’re struggling, as a team. But he is struggling as a human being.”
There were no on-court struggles Tuesday. The 6-foot-1 senior, who gets by with guile and superior passing instincts to make up for a lack of athleticism, shot 10-for-16 and was a usual threat dealing it to others, finishing with eight assists and two turnovers.
To Georgia coach Tom Crean, it was unfortunately a typically brilliant Winston performance. He said, “Probably, if there was an all-decade team of point guards, you’re going to put Cassius Winston on that.”
It was by far his best performance since the tragedy.
“Yeah, definitely. Just, I mean, it just it was a tough day too,” Winston, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, said of that assessment. “I think I cried before the game and things like that. But once I got out there, I was able to find my rhythm, find my peace out there on the court and that was really good for me, getting up-and-down, just having that rhythm that I usually play with, I feel like this is the first time I kind of had it in a while.”
Once Winston stepped off the podium, Izzo, the grizzled Hall of Famer — whose likeness is among the college basketball icons adorning a large banner in the Civic Center — launched into a remarkable 10-minute soliloquy in which be brushed away at least one tear.
“The fact is I had to get that kid off the bench up in that locker room (pregame) because (MSU guard) Rocket Watts said to me, ‘Coach, everybody else left,’ him and Rocket were left. I look over there was a puddle under his chair, a puddle. He’s been struggling, his mother’s been struggling.”
He spoke of coaching Winston with care and gingerly during the ongoing ordeal, similarly to how he noted assembled media were careful about the questions they lobbed at Winston.
“I’m going to listen to Tony Dungy (the former NFL coach whose son died at 18), I’m going to listen to Reggie Winston (the father of Cassius and Zachary), and I’m going to try my hardest to coach him back to normalcy, which means I have to be normal too. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done.”
Michigan State closes the tournament against a fellow traditional power, UCLA, in today’s 9:30 a.m. fifth-place game.