WASHINGTON — The ball almost seemed to hang in the air Sunday evening at Capital One Arena, as Kenny Goins held a pose and watched it fall. The Michigan State bench was frozen. The Spartans fans behind them were silent.
Then, when Goins’ go-ahead three found the net: Pandemonium.
The sure-handed senior put Michigan State ahead in the final minute, and a missed free throw by R.J. Barrett with 5.2 seconds left on the clock helped seal the deal.
And so, in arguably the most highly-anticipated matchup of the Elite Eight — a meeting of powerhouse programs with high-profile coaches and a plethora of stars — Michigan State was able to hold on, defeating the Blue Devils, 68-67, in an absolute thriller.
This game was supposed to be good, but nobody could’ve predicted it would be this good.
The Spartans (32-6) will return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 — when they, coincidentally, lost to Duke in the national semifinal. They’ll face Texas Tech, the winner in the West Region, on Saturday.
THRILLING FINISH: The moments that defined Virginia’s defeat of Purdue
ROAD TO MINNEAPOLIS: 2019 NCAA tournament schedule and results
Cassius Winston, who sprinted away from the crowd on the final possession to end the game, led the way with 20 points and 10 assists for Michigan State, while Xavier Tillman added 19 points and nine boards. Zion Williamson had 24 points and 14 rebounds for Duke.
The first three Elite Eight games were spectacular — including a pair of overtime games — but this one always seemed destined to be the best of the bunch. This, after all, was Duke and Michigan State, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo — a pair of legendary coaches and legendary programs with a combined 19 Final Four appearances and seven national titles between them.
The victory was a bit of redemption for Izzo, who entered the game just 1-11 against Krzyzewski. The Duke coach was seeking his record 13th Final Four. He is currently tied for first with John Wooden.
“To be the best, you got to beat the best and there’s no question they are the best,” Izzo said.
From the beginning, the matchup lived up to the hype. There was the requisite Williamson slams, and a wave of Winston floaters. Cam Reddish, who had been a gametime decision with a knee injury, checked into the game after two minutes to a massive ovation from the Duke-heavy crowd. The energy in Capital One Arena was everything that was expected.
As the half progressed, momentum swung between the teams in long stretches, each of them several minutes long. First, the Blue Devils opened up a nine-point lead with a 12-0 run. Then Winston ended it with a pair of baskets, and the Spartans went on a 13-0 run over their own to close out the half ahead 34-30.
All the while, the specter of foul trouble hung over Williamson, who was forced to briefly ride the bench after picking up his second foul with 4:52 left in the half.
He didn’t seem to mind in the second half, though — continuing to play as aggressively as ever, both on offense and on the boards. Williamson bodied Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman into a pair of quick fouls, forcing him out of the game, then took advantage of substitute Nick Ward. The projected No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft more than lived up to the hype, in this game and throughout the weekend.
But Michigan State had its own answers. Matt McQuaid, who had a poster in the first half, hit a spinning how-did-I-do-that layup midway through the second. Tillman took the ball on a breakaway and threw down a one-handed slam, Williamson-style.
With a little more than three minutes remaining, it was a two-point game — setting up the epic finale to an epic evening.