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Alexander Wolff
April 10, 2000
Michigan State overcame a nearly devastating injury to its leader to conquer Florida's vaunted pressure defense and win the national title
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April 10, 2000

State Of Siege

Michigan State overcame a nearly devastating injury to its leader to conquer Florida's vaunted pressure defense and win the national title

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Up in the stands, the sign read TONIGHT WE'RE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT'S 1979—a fan's reference to Michigan State's long-ago NCAA championship. Down on the floor, index fingers bobbed high above a scrum of green and white.

There's a more contemporary gesture, though, that is just right for the team that gave Michigan State another NCAA title, its first since Magic Johnson's moment 21 years ago. To signify the Spartans' 89-76 defeat of Florida, we should raise a pinkie to the edge of the mouth, in the "You complete me" sign popularized by the Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me. For in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on Monday night, college basketball crowned a champion of consummate completeness. Michigan State won its championship with a lineup rich in juniors and seniors, carefully assembled and mindful of their moment. The Spartans had solved one of the nation's best zones to beat Syracuse in the Midwest Regional semifinals. They had subdued a superb individual star, Marcus Fizer of Iowa State, in the regional final. And then they passed the most daunting possible test of versatility in Indy, first outplodding Wisconsin, then outsprinting the Gators. "Like beating Randy Jones one night," said one courtside wag in admiration, "and beating Randy Johnson the next."

Michigan State finished its work after effectively losing the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for most of the second half of the tide game. Mateen Cleaves is a leader, a defender, a passer, a shooter, in that order. Cleaves is also a misnomer, for he unites, adheres—completes. "Cleaves didn't get to the rim a whole lot," said Florida forward Mike Miller of the Spartans' point guard, whose 18 points included three three-pointers. "But when he's knocking down shots, which is about the third-best tiling he does, he's something."

With guard Charlie Bell and forward Morris Peterson, Cleaves is one of the Flintstones, the matched set of Spartans starters from the basketball badlands of Flint. Michigan State's very first possession of the title game augured what would come, and it was a Flintstones special: Cleaves passing to Peterson, who left a jump shot short, only to watch Bell emerge in traffic to spear the ball for a tip-in. Finishing what it starts: That's what a complete team does. Or as Bell put it last week, describing the extremes of what his team could do: "We can slow it down, get offensive rebounds and hurt people, or run with the best of 'em."

"They are good," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said before the Badgers' semifinal with the Spartans. "They are tough. They are sound. They are as complete as I can imagine a team can be."

Michigan State's fourth meeting with Wisconsin this season proved anew the adage, Familiarity breeds contemptible basketball. With the Spartans scrambling over every screen and laying a body on each posted-up Badger, Wisconsin's offense couldn't create what Bennett calls "comfort looks" for his three-point shooters, Jon Bryant and Duany Duany.

Yet even before Wisconsin could break a dry spell in which it failed to score a basket for a six-minute stretch of the first half, Michigan State embarked on a drought of its own that lasted almost twice as long. The Flintstones seemed to be dragging the game back into prehistory with them. The half ended with the Spartans leading 19-17. (In the Badgers' 1941 NCAA championship-game win over Washington State, long before the advent of the shot clock and the three-pointer, the teams scored two more points than that before intermission.) "The first team to 40 will win," former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote, the man who led Magic's team to that '79 title, had predicted on the eve of the game. But Heathcote hadn't allowed for the possibility that neither team would crack that mark.

To watch Michigan State play is to wonder sometimes whether the Spartans conjure up adversity just so they can rally in its face. Early in the season, after Cleaves suffered a stress fracture in his right foot that sidelined him for 13 games, they used the injury as an opportunity to develop depth and improve their half-court offense. In NCAA tournament play they surmounted halftime deficits in three of their six games, outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.5 points in the second half. With each Michigan State resurrection, the Spartans' star forward, Peterson, seemed to rise too, usually in response to hortatory halftime oratory. The team was so down against the Badgers, however, that Spartans coach Tom Izzo would say later, "We kind of had a little kiss-and-hug" at half-time. In that group encounter the occasionally reticent Mo Pete, who had missed four of his five shots to that point, spoke up. "Very seldom has Pete really asked for the ball," Izzo said. "But he felt he could post up, he wanted the ball down low, and the other guys felt obliged to get it to him."

Peterson's assertiveness cheered his coach. "I've often wondered if Morris is a guy who can handle success," Izzo says. "The kid broke down crying when I told him he was Big Ten player of the year. I think it was half his feeling sorry for Mateen [not getting the honor] and half his feeling good."

The Spartans' feel-good season seemed imperiled until they began to unshackle themselves from the Wisconsin defense in the second half, setting screens for Peterson closer to the basket so that their offense could get surer shots than the three-pointers for which they'd been settling. Mo Pete scored 10 points during the 13-2 stretch that consolidated Michigan State's lead after the break. Then he made a couple of his signature shots, majestic threes from the wing off double screens, as the Spartans muddled home 53-41. "It seemed like every time we started to make a run, Morris Peterson came up with a big basket," said Badgers forward Mark Vershaw, using the word run loosely.

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