March 7, 1999
By NANCY ARMOUR
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - It wasn't enough for Michigan State to hear everyone say the Spartans were the Big Ten's best team. Nope, they wanted the titles and the trophies to prove it.
The second-ranked Spartans (29-4) added the conference tournament championship to their regular-season title Sunday, making easy work of overachieving but exhausted Illinois with a 67-50 victory. Seeded last in the tournament after winning just three conference games, Illinois (14-18) upset three Top 25 teams in three days to get to the championship.
"It was motivation for us, playing in the championship here," said Mateen Cleaves, who added outstanding player of the tournament to his Big Ten co-MVP award. "Last year, we watched it on TV. This year, we really wanted to be in it. We wanted to win this tournament."
The victory was the 18th straight for the Spartans, and gave them the school record for most wins in a season. The 1989-90 squad - the last Michigan State squad to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament - finished 28-6.
As the game ended, Antonio Smith shadowboxed with Sparty the mascot, and the Michigan State players broke out the boxes of championship hats and T-shirts.
"We did what we wanted to do in the Big Ten. Now we got through the Big Ten tournament," said Jason Klein, who finished with six points, all on 3-pointers. "It was a letdown last year, but now we've accomplished it."
Michigan State has been the best team in the country's toughest conference all season, and it showed why against Illinois. It got 11 points apiece from Morris Peterson and Andre Hutson, and three others finished with nine points.
Cleaves had one of his finest games with nine points and 10 assists. He finished the tournament with 29 assists and just four turnovers in three games.
"I've got to give credit to my teammates," he said. "They just ran the floor and they knocked down some big shots for me. They made my job easy. I look good with the stats, but I've got to give all the credit to my teammates."
And Michigan State's defense, the heart and soul of this blue-collar team, was outstanding as usual. The Spartans held Illinois without a field goal for almost eight minutes in the first half, and after a basket by Cory Bradford, kept it scoreless for more than six minutes.
They also had a 40-24 rebounding edge, including 18-9 on the offensive glass. They forced 16 turnovers and turned them into 28 points.
"They did a great run, but we wanted to win this," Klein said. "We were focused. Before the game, we said, Let's go at them.' We beat them twice this year. We can't let them dictate the game.' We were going to keep pushing the ball and play our type of style."
Of course, Illinois' weary legs might have had something to do with the lopsided game. The Illini had looked sharp in their first three games, but they were huffing and puffing by the first timeout Sunday. Their exhaustion showed at the free throw line, where the Illini went 10-of-20. At one point, they missed four of six.
"To a degree, without question, we were a little tired," coach Lon Kruger said. "But fatigue wasn't a factor in the result for sure. Michigan State was outstanding, deserving of their national ranking."
Bradford led the Illini with 21 points.
"We came so close and we also came so far," Bradford said. "A lot of people didn't expect us to get this far. We were a little surprised we got this far."
Victor Chukwudebe's 7-foot jumper brought Illinois within 18-17 with 9:18 left in the first half, but it was all Michigan State after that.
In a 16-second span, Hutson made a layup, Smith stole the ball and dished it to Cleaves, who took it in for the pull-up jumper and a 35-25 lead with 1:08 left in the half. Klein added a 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 38-25 halftime lead.
Cleaves opened the second half with a 3-pointer and two quick assists to put Michigan State ahead 45-25 lead with 16:31 left. Peterson's basket was the last in the 16-0 run and gave the Spartans a 47-25 lead.
"This caps off an unbelievable Big Ten season for us," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Whether we win or lose the games to come, we're going to be ready to play and a team's going to get our best effort."