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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Backdoor Gets Slammed on Princeton

East Regional: Michigan State uses Cleaves and defense to end 20-game streak, 63-56.

March 15, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HARTFORD, Conn. — Princeton's captivating season came to an end Saturday, and the emblematic moment came at the end of the first half.

Michigan State showed the Tigers the door.

The Spartans' Antonio Smith had the ball near the high post when Charlie Bell suddenly sensed the defense was overplaying him. A turn of the head, and Bell was gone, cutting to the basket for a pass and an open layup against the Tigers.

Touche.

"That was kind of a new play we put in a couple of weeks ago," Smith said with a sly smile. "We caught 'em sleeping on one of their own plays. It felt good."

One play hardly decided the game, a 63-56 NCAA East Regional victory for Michigan State that sent the Spartans to the round of 16 for the first time since 1990.

But if nothing else, it showed that the Spartans understand what Princeton is about as well as any team but North Carolina, which handed the Tigers their only other loss in a 27-2 season.

Michigan State (22-7) played savvy defense that allowed Princeton to score on only one of its famous backdoor plays and took advantage of Princeton's seven-for-28 day from three-point range.

Center Steve Goodrich was one for six on three-pointers, forward James Mastaglio was 0 for six, and Gabe Lewullis, who scored the winning basket in an upset of UCLA two seasons ago, went one for six as the Tigers' 20-game winning streak ended.

Only Brian Earl was on, going five for 10, and making all but two of Princeton's seven three-point shots.

Almost as excruciating for Princeton was a nine-for-18 performance from the foul line.

"It's disappointing. I really can't measure the season," Goodrich said. "When you win, you're happy. When you lose, you can't even talk. I feel so bad about right now, I can't even talk about it."

The Spartans pressured the ball to contest three-pointers and guarded the backdoor, playing a step off the Tigers and keeping an arm up to deny the pass even as they chased the Princeton cutters.

And to back it all up, Smith directed traffic from the low post, alerting his teammates to every cut that spelled trouble.

Even so, and the Spartans were able to win only after point guard Mateen Cleaves made a daring three-point basket with 34 seconds left in the game, pulling up from NBA range despite a two-point lead and a shot clock with time to spare.

That made it a 59-54 lead and sent Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo's team into a regional semifinal against No. 1 North Carolina on Thursday at Greensboro, N.C.

In the stands, a Michigan State fan hoisted a sign: "Izz-over, Princeton!"

Cleaves did it all for Michigan State, scoring 27 points and assisting on five of the 13 Michigan State baskets he didn't score himself.

His last shot, though, was startlingly bold. A miss, and the Spartan lead would have been two with about 30 seconds to play.

"I really wanted to penetrate and kick it out, but he backed off, and I put it up," Cleaves said.

"It was pretty surprising," said Earl, who was guarding Cleaves. "I had just been called for my fourth foul, and if I had the ball, I'd drive on me. Naturally, I backed off. He pulled up from pretty far out there. You've got to give him credit for having the confidence to try that shot."

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