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State Is Indy-structible

Final: Michigan State doesn't let injury to Cleaves get it down and wins second national title, 89-76.

April 04, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn't Magic this time, it was adhesive tape and grit.

It wasn't Willis Reed limping out to deflate the Lakers, it was Mateen Cleaves hobbling back to deflate the Gators.

Michigan State beat the press Monday night and beat Florida, 89-76, to win the national championship before a crowd of 43,116 at the RCA Dome.

Twenty-one years after Magic Johnson drove the Spartans to the title in 1979, Cleaves dragged Michigan State to another.

The game appeared headed toward a storybook ending. Michigan State went through Florida's vaunted press like a fork through water.

The Gators' youth was not being served, it was being broiled and burned.

But with 16:18 left, and the Spartans up by six, all air left Michigan State lungs when Cleaves, in the midst of his shining moment, badly turned his right ankle after being bumped on a drive by Teddy Dupay.

Cleaves writhed on the ground.

What, again? Now?

Cleaves sat out the first 13 games of the season because of a stress fracture to the same foot, and now he was going to miss the last 16 minutes?

Cleaves looked as if he was finished when he limped to the locker room.

"I was in a lot of pain when I went down," Cleaves said later. "I tried to walk on it, but I couldn't put any pressure on it."

But whatever opening Florida thought it had with Cleaves out was closed in a hurry by a team that knew what it was like to play without him.

Mike Chappel made a three-point shot and tipped in a miss to extend the lead to 11.

With 13:24 left, the crowd roared when monitors showed Cleaves, his ankle re-taped, leaving the Michigan State locker room. The only thing missing was the theme from "Rocky."

Cleaves arrived courtside at 12:51, with the Spartans up by nine. Once, Willis Reed of the New York Knicks limped out on a bum knee and stuck an emotional dagger into the Lakers.

Cleaves' return had that kind of feel.

"It was kind of like it was meant to happen that way," Spartan Coach Tom Izzo said.

Cleaves returned with 11:51 left and the Spartans ahead by eight. He would not score another point, but his presence was enough. Michigan State extended the lead to 15 points with 7:25 left and led by as much as 20 with 5:18 remaining when Morris Peterson made a three-pointer from the baseline.

"I told the trainer he was going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one," Cleaves said.

In the end, Michigan State proved it could win with or without Cleaves. It proved it could win pretty and win ugly. The Spartans slugged out a 53-41 decision against Wisconsin in the national semifinals, shooting 34% in the game and 25% in the first half.

Monday, the Spartans simply switched gears and ran Florida out of the gym, despite a 27-point performance from Gator center Udonis Haslem.

Against Florida, Michigan State made 55.9% of its shots, 33 of 59.

Experience trumped youth.

Michigan State's three seniors--Cleaves, Peterson and A.J. Granger--combined for 58 of the team's 89 points. The Spartans proved that wanting something bad enough counts for something. They lost in the national semifinals last year to Duke and vowed to come back this year and finish the job.

The outcome, despite Cleaves' injury, was never really in doubt.

"If you looked at it, they did a great job without him in the beginning of the year," Florida's Mike Miller said. "They're a great basketball team. It's not like it was Mateen Cleaves and a bunch of spastics."

Michigan State's guile was too much for Billy Donovan's young Gators. The Spartans easily picked apart the Gators' full-court press, simply passing the ball over the top of the pressure for easy first-half baskets. Michigan State had only four turnovers in the first half.

The Gators tried to tire the Spartans by throwing waves of fresh faces at their opponents, but Michigan State simply would not wilt.

Florida's press was much more effective in the second half, forcing 10 turnovers, but Michigan State then put the game away by bombing the Gators with an array of outside shots.

Monday, youth froze.

Sophomore Teddy Dupay, who averaged 40 points a game in high school, was held scoreless. Freshmen forward Donnell Harvey made only three of 11 shots.

Miller, Florida's splendid sophomore forward, was held to two baskets.

The Gators were outrebounded, 32-30, and generally outfoxed.

There were no answers for the many problems Michigan State posed.

You can stop Cleaves, or Peterson, or Charlie Bell at certain times, but in the end it's like trying to plug holes in a dam.

Monday, Cleaves was on his game, shaking off a one-for-seven shooting effort against Wisconsin to finish with 18 points, making seven of his 11 attempts.

Peterson scored 15 of his team-high 21 points in the second half.

But the real killer was Granger, whom Donovan called the "X" factor.

Granger finished with 19, making seven of 11 shots and three of five three-pointers.

Donovan admitted his team may have have had a little stage fright.

"There had to be some jitters," Donovan said. "I'd be lying if I said there weren't. I'm not going to say our guys were cool and calm, that nothing fazes them. They probably were a little nervous."

Florida, in the end, must have known it was lucky to be here. The Gators needed a last-second shot to beat Butler in the opening round, then caught fire and made an impassioned run to the title game.

"This year we had a little fate to get to the Final Four," Miller said. "As coach said afterward, 'Maybe it wasn't our turn.' "

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NCAA 2000 FINAL FOUR / BY THE NUMBERS

.559 Michigan State's shooting percentage (33 of 59)

.500 Michigan State's three-point shooting percentage (11 of 22)

20 Michigan State's biggest lead

0 Florida never led

21 Years since Michigan State's first NCAA title.

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