By Samuel Chamberlain
Published March 31, 2019
Kenny Goins hit a three-pointer with 34.3 seconds remaining as Michigan State overcame a 24-point, 14-rebound performance by Zion Williamson to defeat top overall seed Duke, 68-67, in the East Regional Final Sunday evening in Washington, D.C.
R.J. Barrett, one of Duke's three phenomenal freshmen, had a chance to tie the game with 5.2 seconds to go, but made only one of two free throws after Goins' clutch shot put MSU up 68-66. Cassius Winston, Michigan State's star man with 20 points and 10 assists, was able to dribble out the clock after receiving the ensuing inbounds pass and send the Spartans to Minneapolis.
Michigan State will play Texas Tech in one national semifinal on Saturday, while Virginia will matchup with Auburn in the other semifinal.
The Spartans made their first Final Four since 2015 with the win, while Duke fell in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, who will take part in his eighth Final Four, beat Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for just the second time in 13 meetings and the second time in seven NCAA Tournament games.
In a weekend filled with classic games, the very best was saved for last as the top two seeds in the East Region -- helmed by two legendary coaches -- traded blows all game long. In the end, the Blue Devils' luck in close games -- which had seen them eke out wins over Central Florida in the second round and Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16 -- just ran out.
Izzo had to navigate foul trouble to big man Xavier Tillman, who was essential in guarding Williamson and factoring in on the offensive end. Tillman played 29 minutes and scored 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting and added nine rebounds.
Duke appeared to have taken control of the game late in the first half when they ripped off a 12-0 run to take a 30-21 lead on a Barrett three-pointer with 5:24 remaining. But just 30 seconds later, Williamson picked up his second foul and was sent to the bench by Krzyzewski. That seemed to spark the Spartans, who scored the final 13 points of the first half to take a 34-30 lead at the break. An Aaron Henry dunk on the first possession of the second half, assisted by Winston, stretched the run to 15-0 before Williamson stopped the skid with a jumper.
From there, the teams went back-and-forth, responding each time the other appeared to take a stranglehold in the game. When Williamson hit a three-pointer to put Duke up, 52-48, Winston answered with a trey of his own to make it a one-point game. Shot of the day honors went to Michigan State senior guard Matt McQuaid, who banked in a spinning, twisting shot to put the Spartans up 58-56 with 8:20 remaining.
After a Tillman breakaway dunk was converted into a three-point play, MSU led 63-59 with four minutes to go, but Duke had an answer. A jumper by Javin DeLaurier (10 points, 11 rebounds), a three-pointer by Barrett (21 points, six assists) and a Williamson layup put Duke up 66-63 with 1:33 to go. But, a Tillman layup cut the lead to one and Barrett missed a jumper on the ensuing possession before Goins hit just his second three in eight attempts.
It was the shot that sent the Spartans to Minneapolis.
The Tigers were decided underdogs in this game after star forward Chuma Okeke suffered a torn ACL during Friday night's Sweet 16 win over North Carolina. But his teammates filled the void admirably as Jared Harper scored 26 points for the Tigers, who reached their first Final Four in program history. Bryce Brown added 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including four timely three-pointers.
With Sunday's win, the Tigers became the first team to defeat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the same tournament since Arizona pulled off the trifecta on their way to the 1997 national title.
Auburn started slowly, missing eight of their first nine three-point attempts after hitting 17 shots from beyond the arc in Friday night's win over top-seeded North Carolina. The Tigers were also beset by early foul trouble along their depleted front line, as Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley each picked up two fouls before the 10-minute mark of the first half.
On the other side, P.J. Washington seemingly could do no wrong, scoring 15 first-half points on five-of-eight shooting. He would finish with 28 points and 13 rebounds but didn't get enough help from his mates.
The Tigers rallied after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, outscoring Kentucky 10-5 over the final three minutes before halftime to cut their deficit to just 35-30 at the intermission.
Auburn picked where they left off in the second half, opening on a 10-2 run and taking their first lead of the game at 40-37 on a Brown three-pointer with 17:47 left in regulation. The Tigers players and fans got an additional boost when Okeke was wheeled to the end of the bench during a TV timeout.
Kentucky briefly retook the lead on a Washington dunk and foul shot, but Brown hit another trey to restore Auburn's lead at 47-46.
Kentucky appeared to have retaken control of the game when Washington put back his own miss to make the score 60-58, Wildcats with 57 seconds remaining. But Harper drove the floor and laid in the tying basket with 38 seconds to go. Auburn could have won the game in regulation, but Horace Spencer missed a difficult three-point shot on the final possession.
Harper then scored the first four points of the extra session. And when Ashton Hagans scored for Kentucky, it was Anfernee McLemore who added back-to-back baskets that forced the Wildcats to play catch-up.
They never made it all the way back.
Samir Doughty made the second of two free throws to give Auburn a 74-71 lead with 16.1 seconds left, and the Wildcats' Keldon Johnson misfired at the other end, wrapping up a victory that will surely send the Auburn fan base streaming to Toomer's Corner.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.