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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT : WEST REGIONAL AT TUCSON : Michigan State Escapes Upset

March 16, 1991|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON — When almost all else fails--and most everything did for Michigan State during the first round of Friday's West Regional at the McKale Center--the Spartans turn to guard Steve Smith.

As usual, Smith came through, though this one took some doing. With the final seconds sprinting toward zeroes, Smith hesitated ever so slightly, juked to his left and then let loose a buzzer-beating 18-footer that gave Michigan State a 60-58 victory over Wisconsin Green Bay.

"A dream come true," said Smith, who admitted he didn't have a clue how much time remained when he took the game-winning shot.

Smith, who finished with 19 points, also made two three-point baskets in the final four minutes that were nearly as important as his final shot. The first one pulled Michigan State (19-10) within three points, the second one tied the game, 58-58, with 2:10 remaining.

This was supposed to be a relatively painless game for the fifth-seeded Spartans. They were taller, bigger, stronger and more experienced than the 12th-seeded Fighting Phoenix (24-7), who were making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Yes, well, tell it to Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote, who found his team on the wrong end of 35-30 halftime score. Green Bay, which led the nation in three-point percentage (46%), converted eight of the 10 long-range shots in the first half. The Fighting Phoenix also stayed close in rebounds and floor burns.

"We talked about that in length at halftime," Heathcote said. "I did most of the talking."

The Spartans must have listened. They held Green Bay star guard Tony Bennett, the coach's son, scoreless in the second half. Bennett had scored nine in the first.

Father and son played crucial roles in the closing minutes. Coach Dick Bennett instructed his team to switch from a man-to-man defense to a zone. The strategy backfired when the Spartans' Smith used the extra space to launch his three pointers.

"They probably were my first open shots," he said.

Said Dick Bennett about the zone: "A mistake on my part."

Then, with less than 20 seconds left to play, Tony Bennett attempted a short jump shot from the baseline. It smacked against the side of the backboard.

"They were waiting for me," he said.

There was little doubt what Michigan State player would try the last shot. Smith dribbled for 10 seconds or so, made his favorite hesitation move and then aimed. The ball snapped the net.

Utah 82, South Alabama 72--Coach Rick Majerus called his team's first-half showing "the most abysmal performance I've ever been involved in since I've been at Utah."

Majerus had a point. The Runnin' Utes, seeded fourth, were slowed to a walk in the first half and trailed, 41-34, at halftime.

"It was all an affair of the heart and the head," Majerus said.

He didn't quite put it that way during his halftime tirade.

Properly revived, Utah (29-3) quickly tied the game and then distanced itself from the 13th-seeded Jaguars. Josh Grant led Utah with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Walter Watts, Utah's 6-foot-8, 265-pound center, added 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Boobie James, who played for Nevada Las Vegas as a freshman, scored 15 points for South Alabama (22-9).

Michigan State plays Utah Sunday.

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