MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Tillman couldn’t quite believe it when he saw it. As he stepped out on to the floor, the Michigan State sophomore was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Tillman looked around U.S. Bank Stadium and tried to get a grasp of it.
“I’ve never been in anything like this before. We walked out there and everybody was kind of looking around like this is huge,” Tillman. “It was hard to even see the top of the stadium. I’ve never played in something this big.”
The stadium matches the stage, as well as the role Tillman has played for the Spartans over the last six weeks to help them get back to their first Final Four since 2015 and try to win Tom Izzo’s second national championship. The Grand Rapids, Mich. native has transformed from useful reserve to indispensable piece after taking over as starter following Nick Ward’s hand injury in mid-February.
“He plays his role to perfection,” All-American point guard Cassius Winston said.
That role was one the 6-foot-8 forward had to wait for, not just this season, but last. A four-star recruit coming out of Grand Rapids Christian High School, Tillman spent the bulk of his freshman season watching. He played just 305 minutes, rarely seeing the floor for more than just spot duty for a few minutes each game. Still, that was a role he tried to embrace.
“My freshman year when I didn’t play in any games, I was on the bench standing up, yelling. I was clapping. I was smacking the ground,” Tillman said. “Show as much energy as I could from the bench so whenever they looked over, they’d be locked in.”
Tillman went from spending most of his time on the bench last year to seeing much more action as a sophomore, but it wasn’t until Nick Ward broke his hand on Feb. 17, that Tillman emerged not only as a reliable replacement but a critical cog in Michigan State winning 14 of its last 15 to reach the Twin Cities and Izzo’s eighth Final Four.
He immediately put up numbers, going for 19 points and nine boards in his starting debut against Rutgers and followed that up shortly with double-doubles against Nebraska and Michigan. Despite the stats, though, Tillman was still trying to feel his way through his expanded role.
“I wasn’t comfortable,” Tillman. “In the moment you try to get comfortable, you try to lock in, but you’re always going to be a little shaky in the moment. When you look back on it, you can say, ‘OK, at this moment I made a mistake that I usually don’t make so I was probably a little nervous at that point.’”
Eventually, those nerves melted away as Tillman’s production rose down the stretch of the season. In his 12 starts, he averaged 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor.
“He’s stepped up a lot,” Ward said. “He’s been doing his thing.”
That thing was never better than when Michigan State needed him most. Sunday against Duke, the tournament’s prohibitive favorite, and Zion Williamson, the biggest force to hit college basketball in years, Tillman was at his best, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds while defending Williamson.
There were no more nerves. No more searching for comfort. Just production.
“You would think, this is a big game, you should be a little nervous,” Tillman said, “but I was really comfortable. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I’m living with all my results that happen on the court so now I’m just trying to win the game and play as hard as I can no matter how well I play or not.”
Tillman is a man who not only has settled into his role with the Spartans, but his spot in life. He’s the father of a 2-year-old daughter and will marry his fiance next month. It brings the perspective that allows him to thrive at a university that casts a shadow 70 miles across Interstate 96 from East Lansing to his hometown.
“Other than getting engaged, this has been the best decision I’ve made, for my family, just for myself,” he said. “Myself because I’ve gotten to compete against some really great guys that made me better, and formed me into the man I am today.”
That’s a man that will be vital for Michigan State as it looks to reclaim its spot atop college basketball after nearly a two-decade hiatus.
“We’ve come this far, might as well finish it,” Tillman said. “To be part of a program with such a winning history is already an honor. To make another mark with the history of this program, is just unbelievable. Hopefully we’re able to finish it out with another national championship and add to coach’s resume and start our’s as well.”
Luka Garza’s big night carries No. 20 Iowa past No. 25 Ohio State
The Hawkeyes (19-8, 10-6 Big Ten) opened the game with a 27-8 run in the first 10 minutes. Ohio State (17-9, 7-8) closed to within 43-35 with 41 seconds left in the first half, and was within nine points on three occasions early in the second half before Iowa went on an 18-8 run to lead 69-50 with 6:43 to play.
Freshman E.J. Liddell led Ohio State with a season-high 17 points. Duane Washington Jr., had 15 points. C.J. Walker had 11. Kaleb Wesson had 10 points before fouling out.
Iowa redshirt freshman guard CJ Fredrick missed his second consecutive game because of a right ankle injury.
Fredrick, who has 22 starts this season, is averaging 10.7 points per game and is second on the team with 42 3-pointers. He missed two games earlier this season with a stress reaction in his left foot.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes, who had won five of their last six games, lost a little momentum heading into Sunday’s game with Big Ten leader Maryland.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes extended their home winning streak to 12 games and stayed among the top teams in the league standings.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes moved into the poll this week after a four-week absence. This loss could drop them out of the rankings.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes are off until next week, so they should maintain their position, if not improve a spot or two.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes play at home against Maryland on Sunday.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes play at Michigan State next Tuesday.
Meet The Mabreys: Three sisters making a splash in women’s hoops
A college athlete, a WNBA player, and an assistant coach.
Dara, Marina and Michaela Mabrey all have a fierce passion for basketball and an unbreakable bond with each other. Despite being almost constant competitors—whether that be in their driveway growing up or as foes in the ACC—the sisters have found a way to remain close and act as one another’s role models and confidants.
Their two brothers, Roy and Ryan, also share a love for the game, and finish out the Mabrey family starting five.
The Mabrey sisters have made quite the impact on women’s college basketball. The youngest sister, Dara, is a sophomore at Virginia Tech, while Marina and Michaela both played for Notre Dame—even overlapping for one year. On Thursday night, Dara’s Hokies will face off with Michaela’s Fighting Irish.
“I’m just super proud of both of them and where they’re at in their careers,” Michaela said. “I’m really happy to watch them every day and see how much they’ve grown, as basketball players and as women.”
The bonds of sisterhood
“As much as we can, we’re always there for each other.”
Despite the current distance between them, they find a way to talk every single day, Michaela added.
It’s been difficult for the sisters since the WNBA season ended. Marina is currently playing basketball overseas in Latvia, and her sisters haven’t seen her since September. Michaela is at Notre Dame and Dara resides in Blacksburg, Virginia, but the two face a rigorous ACC schedule that keeps them apart for most of the season.
“We’re all super super close,” Dara said. “Even when things happen and we’re upset, we’re always the first people we call. Especially when we really need it, it does suck being away from your sister.”
Even while Marina was still in college, it could be hard to see each other with the busy schedules that college athletes undertake. But, this never stopped the Mabrey sisters from being there for one another when it really counted.
A moment that will stay with me forever. I had a great time at Virginia Tech last night with my family. No matter what, we are always on the same team. ❤️☘️🦃 pic.twitter.com/X5IyDZFST3
When Marina was in her freshman year, Michaela spent time with her sister, walking her through all the challenges and obstacles of being a student athlete. And when Dara was dealing with the typical plight of being a first-year college athlete, Michaela went down to Virginia to be with her.
Marina, learning from her big sister, did the same for Dara.
“Marina drove through the night one night, my first summer there when I was kind of homesick,” Dara added. “She drove through the night for 11 hours from Notre Dame to Virginia Tech.”
When Michaela graduated and went into the working force, she was still able to find time for both of her sisters.
“Last year, when I was working at LSU, we had a bye week and I was able to see Dara and watch her play against North Carolina,” Michaela said. “And I followed Marina throughout her entire tournament last year. I was at every game.”
While it could be easy to let life get in the way, that’s not how the Mabrey sisters operate.
“Those are my best friends,” Michaela beamed, seeming to smile through the phone.
“Obviously when you’re growing up, you do the same things your older siblings do,” Dara explained.
That’s how it all started for the Mabrey sisters. Michaela, the oldest, watched her brother Roy play basketball, and Marina and Dara followed in her footsteps from there.
“We were all eager to play when we were younger… watching it and being around it so much made us want to do it,” Dara said.
Each only two and a half years apart, the New Jersey natives didn’t have to wait long to be able to play against one another in their childhood driveway — where some of their most intense and competitive battles took place.
“Someone would come in crying or someone would be in trouble for pushing too hard,” Dara laughed. “There were plenty of times where someone would think it was a foul, someone thought it wasn’t a foul… Then someone would end up walking away. You’d give them 5 minutes to calm down and then eventually ours start playing one on one again.”
“I would try to play against Roy and Michaela and cry if I lost,” Marina added. “My mom would make them play with only their left hands and try to make it somewhat fair…but I stomped and cried every time I lost.”
Michaela has one story that comes to mind out of all of the pickup games the siblings played growing up.
“Last Christmas, when everybody was home, we went to the gym on Christmas morning. And it was Marina, Dara and Ryan — my little brother who’s 16.
“Marina always wins, she’s won almost every single year we’ve played. She always wins. And Ryan beat her this last Christmas. Me and my dad were on the side just laughing… They’re yelling at each other and they’re fouling each other. And my little brother Ryan ended up winning and Marina had a giant fit and it was so fun to just watch.”
While each sister had to deal with the pressure of being compared to an older sibling, Marina and Dara had to fight to escape Michaela’s shadow. Marina was apprehensive about choosing Notre Dame, as she wanted to make sure it was the right place for her. Dara, on the other hand, felt she had to differentiate herself from both older sisters.
“I was never compared to people in my class that I was playing against,” Dara admitted. “I was always compared to Marina and Michaela, which kind of stunk.
“Definitely, there was that added pressure my entire life. But I think people knew I was for real when I chose Virginia Tech, and they were like, ‘Oh she’s doing her own thing.’ That’s when they actually started taking it seriously.”
Playing the game they love
“I just knew. When I came back from Virginia Tech I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I want to go there,’” Dara gushed.
Instead of following in her sister’s footsteps to Notre Dame, Dara chose to go to another ACC school. In her freshman year, the 5-foot-7 guard averaged 11.2 points per game and was shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. This year, Dara is averaging 12.7 ppg and is shooting 38.4 percent from three.
“I’m undersized, obviously, so I have to make up for it by playing as hard as I can,” Dara explained. “You can erase any mistakes when you do that. I’ve always been a believer in that, but what some people don’t know is that there’s a lot more where that comes from.”
“I’m just super proud of her and how she’s progressed the last year,” Michaela said of her sister. “I’m super excited for her and her career taking off a little bit more this year, and how their team is playing. They’ve got a really great team and Dara is a huge part of it.”
Michaela is no stranger to great teams, either, as part of the winningest class in Notre Dame women’s basketball history from 2012-2016. Marina was at Notre Dame from 2015-2019, overlapping with her sister for one year and being a part of the 2018 national championship team.
“Winning the ACC championship together and everything like that, it was so unique,” Michaela said. “That year still to this day is one of the best years of my life, and to be able to share that with Marina.”
The oldest Mabrey sister thought about going overseas to play professionally after she graduated, but changed her mind “kind of last minute.” She had been told by different people that she’d make a great coach, so she tried it.
“I love it, I love being back at Notre Dame and helping these girls just have the best experience on and off the court,” Michaela gushed.
Marina went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks as the 19th pick in the second round, and averaged four points and 1.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game in her rookie campaign.
“For Marina, this has been her dream since I can’t remember how old… she is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been around,” Michaela said, getting audibly choked up. “If she has a dream, she’s going to go get it. This has been something she’s talked about forever, being a WNBA player.”
The middle Mabrey sister is currently playing for TTT Riga in Latvia, where she is averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 9 games.
“I’m learning a lot about what it takes to be a pro here,” Marina explained. “I feel like I’m becoming a much better point guard because I’m working very hard every game to get my teammates involved and also understand when it’s time for me to contribute.”
Beyond her basketball skill, Marina is known for creating the “This Is My Kitchen” campaign.
“This is my kitchen campaign came about because people on Twitter would put down women’s basketball,” Marina explained. “They would make it hard for people to support us because of their disrespectful comments stereotyping where women belong, such as in the kitchen, cleaning or cooking. I got tired of reading it and of no one standing up for women’s basketball so I decided to.”
Her shirts gained the support of a wide variety of people, from NBA stars—such as Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal—to her teammates. Even the late legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi showed their support for the campaign.
“A lot of NBA players were in support of the movement and tweeted their support,” Marina said. “They reached out to me to have girls they know wear the shirt, so I’m happy that the world will spread that women’s sports deserve respect.”
For the second year in a row, Dara will be up against one of her best friends.
Marina was a senior at Notre Dame when Dara was a freshman, and the two faced off once, with the Fighting Irish handling the Hokies easily in an 80-51 win. Their parents sat in the stands wearing shirts that had the Irish on one side and Hokies on the other—Marina’s creation.
This year, Dara will face Notre Dame with Michaela on board as an assistant coach.
”It’s definitely a unique situation,” Michaela admitted. “And, obviously, I’ve been watching Virginia Tech since Dara went there so I think I have a little advantage… But, I do my scouts the same every single time, whether we’re playing Dara or anyone else in the ACC. I think it’s just going to be an exciting moment for Dara and I.”
“Michaela’s a really good coach and it turns out, of course, that she’s scouting Virginia Tech. So she’s probably going to tell her players every single one of my weaknesses and how to defend it,” Dara laughed.
Just as Dara didn’t follow her sisters to Notre Dame, she may not follow their career paths either.
“I’d like to do either [coach or play professionally], but if I can get a really good broadcasting job, I also might do that because I know that basketball definitely doesn’t last forever,” she said.
Marina is excited to get back to the Sparks in May and utilize what she’s learned overseas in her second year with the team. She’s excited to “earn more playing time, get better individually and become a better teammate.”
Michaela is focusing on how she can impact the women at Notre Dame both on and off the court, and is excited about the future of women’s collegiate and professional basketball.
“I think there’s a lot of attention that has stirred around women’s basketball the last few years,” Michaela said excitedly. “Even with the new rules that the WNBA put in and how much respect we get from NBA players, from men’s college basketball players. I think it’s just going to keep going up and up.”
“For women sports to reach the respect level of men sports, we’ll just have to keep pushing and give it time,” Marina added. “The WNBA is young compared to the NBA in years and we’re on track to be popular and start to strive towards much more popularity and attention.”
Bubble Banter: NC State, Indiana land massive wins
N.C. STATE (NET: 60, NBC: First four out): The Wolfpack are easily the biggest bubble winners of the week, as they blew out Duke (6) at home on Wednesday. It’s the fifth Quad 1 win for Kevin Keatts — they’re also beaten Wisconsin (30) at home and three sub-50 teams on the road — to go along with an 8-6 record against the top two Quads. The biggest problem here is that they have three Quad 3 losses, two of which came at home. As of today, I would have N.C. State on the right side of the cutline and in a play-in game.
INDIANA (NET: 63, NBC: 10): Indiana picked up their fifth Quad 1 win of the season on Wednesday, going into Minnesota (44) and knocking off the Golden Gophers. This one was particularly important because of the fact that the Hoosiers only had a single road win entering the night — at Nebraska (175). They are 7-9 against the top two Quads, and their worst loss is at home to Arkansas. The Hoosiers are in a better spot than people realize.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 53, NBC: First four out): After beating South Carolina (62) at home on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs have now won two straight games and five of their last seven games. Those two Quad 3 losses are not going away, but with a pair of Quad 1 road wins and a 6-7 mark against the top two Quads, Mississippi State has themselves in a spot where they cannot afford to slip-up given that they have just a single Quad 1 opportunity left on their schedule.
VIRGINIA (NET: 54, NBC: 11): The Wahoos have now won three in a row and six of their last seven after picking off Boston College (151) at home. They have three Quad 1 wins and an 8-6 mark against the top two Quads with home dates left against Duke (6) and Louisville (10). They’re in a good spot right now.
UTAH STATE (NET: 41, NBC: Play-in game): After beating Wyoming, the Aggies have won five in a row and eight of their last nine games, ensuring they are still in the NCAA tournament mix and fully turning around a season that looked like it was lost as recently as four weeks ago. Wins over LSU (31) and Florida (35) are nice, but with three road losses to sub-90 teams and no more chances to land marquee wins, how are they going to make up for those losses? They don’t play another top 100 team the rest of the season. I don’t see how they can get in without beating San Diego State (1) in the MWC tournament.
MEMPHIS (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): Memphis is hanging on by a thread right now, but they are still alive after knocking off a bad East Carolina (208) team at home. Memphis has just one Quad 1 win and they don’t have a win over a team inside the top 50; their best win is Cincinnati (50) at home. Throw in a pair of quad 3 losses, and the Tigers have plenty of work to do. The good news? They still get two games against Houston (27), a trip to SMU (67) and a home date with Wichita State (43).
RICHMOND (NET: 46, NBC: Play-in game): The Spiders are still in a good spot for an at-large bid after beating up on George Mason (167) at home. They’re sitting at 20-6 overall with a pair of Quad 1 wins — Wisconsin (30) on a neutral and at Rhode Island (32) — as well as two Quad 2 wins. The trouble with their resume is a a pair of Quad 3 losses, but in a year where so many bubble teams look destined to amass 11 or 12 losses, Richmond will be in the mix. They cannot truly improve their resume until the A-10 tournament.
EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 42, NBC: 11): After beating Furman (71) on Wednesday night, the Buccaneers have gotten through the toughest part of their schedule. They have a win at UNCG (55) and a win at LSU (31). With a 21-4 record and a loss to Mercer (205) at home, the Buccaneers have to win out and lost to only UNCG or Furman in the SoCon tournament to have a chance, and even that might be a bit of a longshot.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (NET: 87, NBC: 12): Stephen F. Austin is 23-3 on the season and 20-3 against Division I competition. Their losses came at Rutgers (28), at Alabama (38) and at home to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (316) by a single point. That’s the worst loss that anyone on the bubble is going to take this season. But they also own a road win at Duke (6), which will go down as one of the very best wins that anyone gets this season. I’m not sure what else they can do.
… AND LOSERS
CINCINNATI (NET: 48, NBC: Play-in game): The Bearcats shot themselves in the foot on Wednesday, losing at home to UCF (125) in the fourth straight overtime game that they have played and their sixth one possession game in a row. Cincinnati have just two Quad 1 wins and four Quad 3 losses. They’re in a bad spot.
GEORGETOWN (NET: 43, NBC: Play-in game): The Hoyas fell to 15-11 on the season with a home loss to Providence (58). It snapped a two-game losing streak and put the Hoyas in a very difficult spot. With road trips to DePaul (70), Marquette (23) and Creighton (11) and home dates with Xavier (39) and Villanova (15), Georgetown has a tough, tough schedule remaining. They do have five Quad 1 wins and a 9-11 mark against the top two Quads, so they are in a good spot.
MINNESOTA (NET: 44, NBC: Off the bubble): The Gophers are below .500 after losing to Indiana (63) at home. This is the last time they’ll be in this space until they start winning a few games.
SOUTH CAROLINA (NET: 65, NBC: Next four out): The Gamecocks had a chance to play themselves into a really good spot on Wednesday, but they lost a close game at Mississippi State (53). At 16-10 overall with a Quad 3 and a Quad 4 loss, the Gamecocks have plenty of work left to do and not all that many great chances left for wins.
ALABAMA (NET: 36, NBC: First four out): Alabama fell to 14-12 overall with a loss to a bad Texas A&M (134) on Wednesday. They now have just one Quad 1 win compared to a pair of Quad 3 losses. Throw in their overall record and the fact that they don’t have a road win over a team ranked in the top 95, and they are in serious trouble.
Villanova went 18 for 26 from deep in its 20th straight victory against DePaul. The Wildcats (20-6, 9-4 Big East) have made at least nine 3s in their last five games, including 17 during Sunday’s 76-56 victory at Temple.
Bey finished with 22 points and seven assists. Gillespie and Justin Moore had 17 points apiece.
DePaul (13-13, 1-12) dropped its eighth straight game. The Blue Demons took the Wildcats to overtime in a 79-75 loss on Jan. 14, but the rematch was a blowout.
While Villanova was taking aim from deep, DePaul went 4 for 12 from 3-point range. Jalen Coleman-Lands scored 17 points, and Paul Reed finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
During one telling sequence in the second half, Coleman-Lands made a nice steal before missing a jam for DePaul. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree then slammed it home at the other end, giving Villanova its biggest lead of the game at 77-46 with 8:21 left.
Cosby-Roundtree finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
The Wildcats grabbed control when they closed the first half with a 15-2 run for a 46-26 lead at the break. They had 10 3s at halftime; the Blue Demons had 10 made field goals.
Villanova improved to 15-1 this season when it wins the rebounding battle. Cosby-Roundtree led the Wildcats to a 35-28 advantage on the glass.
DePaul dropped to 1-4 against ranked opponents this season. The Blue Demons got off to a great start this year, but the Big East slate has been a disaster.
Villanova visits Xavier on Saturday. The Wildcats beat the Musketeers 68-62 in their Big East opener on Dec. 30.
DePaul hosts Georgetown on Saturday night. The Blue Demons lost 76-72 to the Hoyas on Feb. 8.
Second-half surge powers No. 22 Houston past Tulsa
Mills shot 9 of 16, including hitting 5 of 9 on 3-pointers. Nate Hinton added 15 points for Houston (21-6, 11-3 American), which shot 41%.
The Cougars moved into sole possession of first place in the American with the win combined with Cincinnati’s loss to Central Florida on Wednesday. The Cougars rebounded after losing to SMU, 73-72, in overtime on Saturday and avenged a 63-61 loss at Tulsa on Jan. 11.
Martins Igbanu had 15 points, and Jeriah Horne added 12 points and seven rebounds for Tulsa (17-9, 9-4). The Golden Hurricane shot 35% but were 4 of 20 on 3-pointers.
Houston opened the second half by outscoring Tulsa, 30-8, to take a 56-28 lead with 11½ minutes remaining behind Mills, who scored 20 points in the run.
With just under 13 minutes remaining in the game, Tulsa’s frustrations and tensions between the two teams heated up.
Tulsa coach Frank Haith was ejected with 12:50 left in the second half after receiving two technical fouls within two seconds.
After Igbanu was called for traveling on the ensuing possession, Igbanu shoved his shoulder into Fabian White Jr, who fell to the ground. The two teams had to be separated, and Igbanu and White were issued technical fouls on the play, while Elijah Joiner was ejected for an unsportsmanlike flagrant two technical foul for running up on to the play and needing to be held back by the official.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane has lost five straight to the Cougars in Houston, with their last win coming on Feb. 5, 2015. … Tulsa fell to 2-1 against ranked teams this season, with wins over Wichita State and Memphis coming at home. Tulsa last beat a ranked opponent on the road on Feb. 10, 2016 when it won at SMU.
Houston: The Cougars improved to 12-2 at home this season and have won eight straight at home. … Houston forced Tulsa in 16 turnovers and converted it into 18 points. … The Cougars are 6-0 this season after a loss and 16-0 after a loss over the last three seasons.