Leave it to Cleaves
Senior sparks Spartans to national championship
Posted: Tuesday April 04, 2000 08:56 AM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Mateen Cleaves was quite a sight.
He needed crutches so he could stand and some help from his dad with the championship trophy. One of the nets was wrapped around his neck, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
"This is what I came back here for," he said Monday night after leading Michigan State to its second national championship with an 89-76 victory over Florida.
Many thought Cleaves would be playing in the NBA this season. Instead, he led the Spartans to their first title since 1979.
He was impressive in the first half, breaking Florida's press as Michigan State built a 43-32 lead. In the second half, he was his team's limping leader after rolling his right ankle.
"This is as storybook as it gets for Mateen," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He gave up a lot of money, a lot of things, to be back here."
Michigan State's first title was memorable because of Magic. Its second will be remembered because of Mateen.
It was 21 years ago that the championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State -- Magic vs. Bird -- changed the landscape of college basketball.
This one may not have had the magnitude, but it had the drama, thanks to Cleaves.
"He has the heart of a lion. He has done it for four years, not just one," Izzo said. "That's why you love him. He's what our program embodies."
Johnson watched the victory from the stands of the RCA Dome and was on the court to celebrate with the current Spartans.
"I knew they were going to win, especially when Mateen came back this year," he said. "It's been tough waiting these 21 years. But they've been great the last couple of years, and I knew they were going to win it all."
Cleaves, the Final Four's most outstanding player, rolled his ankle early in the second half and had to go to the locker room to have it taped. He had helped the Spartans build the 11-point halftime lead by scoring 13 points, including going 3-for-3 from 3-point range, and negated Florida's vaunted full-court pressure with his ballhandling and passing.
"I told them he'll be back. Let's not get our heads down," Izzo said. "I just knew."
He was right, of course.
"I told the trainer they'd have to amputate it to keep me out of this one," Cleaves said.
When he left with 16:18 to play, the Spartans led 50-44. His teammates got the lead to 58-50 by the time he returned 4:29 later. But the senior guard, who missed the first 13 games of the season while recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot, was again the team's emotional leader.
Cleaves' long pass to Morris Peterson for a layup made it 60-50. He was leveled while setting a screen a few minutes later, but it was enough to spring A.J. Granger for a 3-pointer that started a 16-6 run that made it 84-66 and put the game away.
Michigan State had been on a mission since losing to Duke in the Final Four last season. Anything short of a national championship would have been a disappointment.
"We made some promises. We answered the promises," Izzo said.
Cleaves certainly didn't beat Florida by himself.
Peterson finished with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting, and Granger had 19 and was 7-for-11 from the field.
Cleaves was 7-for-11 from the field -- all the shots coming before he was injured -- and had 18 points and four assists.
The Spartans (32-7), the only top-seeded team to reach the Final Four, finished 33-for-59 from the field (56 percent), the best against Florida's frantic pace by far in the tournament. The previous best was 43 percent by top-ranked Duke in the regional semifinals.
Michigan State never seemed fazed by the pressure, beating it early with long passes. The Spartans were their usual efficient selves when they did run their half-court game, getting good looks and crashing the boards when they missed.
"I think we attacked the press well and passed off very well," Izzo said.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said his team's style was a gamble against Michigan State.
"We watched a lot of tape. I did not see one team press them all year long," he said. "Probably, obviously, for a good reason, teams didn't press them."
The Michigan State bench was considered a key to any chance the Spartans had. Florida's reserves had outscored it 175-45 in the tournament, but Jason Richardson had nine points as the Spartans' backups came up big.
Udonis Haslem had a season-high 27 points for the fifth-seeded Gators (29-9), while Brent Wright added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
"It's been a great season. You hate it to end like this," Haslem said. "If we look back on all the good times, we accomplished a lot. We came together as a family and made this run to the championship."
The 1979 final is still the highest-rated telecast of an NCAA basketball game -- the one that hooked the nation on the NCAA tournament.
This year's version of the Spartans, who beat Wisconsin 53-41 in an ugly all-Big Ten national semifinal, won all six games on their title run by at least 11 points.
Michigan State closed the season with 11 straight wins and is the first Big Ten team to win it all since Michigan in 1989.
Florida, looking to become the fourth straight Southeastern Conference team to win the national championship in an even-numbered year, was making its first appearance in a championship game.
The Gators had seven freshmen and sophomores in their 10-man Rotation, and this was the first game in the tournament that their lack of experience showed.
"Not too many freshmen get to play in a national championship
game," said Kenyan Weaks, Florida's only senior. "This is a great
experience for them. I hope they learn from it. Hopefully, they can
be back here next year."