Spartans Defense Downs Sooners
March 19, 1999
By OWEN CANFIELD
ST. LOUIS -- Michigan State isn't the smoothest team in the NCAA tournament, although the Spartans may be the toughest. Oklahoma found that out Friday night.
Michigan State shut down the Sooners' perimeter shooting, flattened their best player and muscled its way to a 54-46 victory in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
All-American point guard Mateen Cleaves, whose collision with Oklahoma star Eduardo Najera knocked both players out, was only 3-of-14 from the field and his top-seeded Spartans shot just 40 percent. But 13th-seeded Oklahoma was held to 33 percent and was just 4-of-15 from 3-point range, where the Sooners had been so effective in the first two rounds.
"It was an ugly game," Cleaves said. "It's been an ugly tournament for MSU, to tell you the truth. But the guys are coming through, we've come together as a team and we're in the Great Eight."
With their 21st straight victory, the Spartans (32-4) advanced to the regional finals for the first time since their national championship season of 1979.
Oklahoma (22-11) held its own on the backboards and gave up only one fastbreak basket. But the Sooners got just seven points from Najera, none in the final 16 minutes, and couldn't shake Michigan State's perimeter defense.
"If you had told me before the game that we would have more offensive rebounds than Michigan State, that they would have just seven and Mateen would go 3-for-14, I would like our chances," coach Kelvin Sampson said.
"One of the things that's jumped up and bit us in the butt this year is the inability to make shots, but Michigan State deserves some of the credit."
Oklahoma had a 14-6 rebounding margin after the first 12 1/2 minutes against a team that came in averaging 10 more rebounds per game than its opponents. The Sooners also did a good job penetrating against the Spartans' man-to-man defense, and as a result only trailed by a point at halftime.
During the break, coach Tom Izzo reminded his team of how it had gotten this far - by rebounding well and defending.
"We found a way to win 31 other games that way, so why not the 32nd?" he said.
The Spartans held Oklahoma scoreless for the first 3:45 of the second half and took a 32-25 lead. Then they committed eight in the next eight minutes, but still led 36-31 because of their defense.
That was the score when Cleaves, chasing Michael Johnson, ran into a screen set by Najera with 9:34 remaining. Both players fell backward to the floor and the game was held up about 10 minutes while trainers attended to each.
"I had some collisions in my life, and that ranks among the top of them," Cleaves said.
After the delay, Michigan State got a 3-pointer by Charlie Bell and a fast-break dunk by Morris Peterson to take its biggest lead, 41-31, with 8:36 remaining.
The closest Oklahoma came after that was 47-43 with 1:41 to play. The Spartans went 5-of-6 from the foul line in the final 45 seconds to seal the victory.
Cleaves and Najera each returned to the game, but Najera was no factor. Oklahoma's trainer said Najera suffered a concussion, a cut requiring six stitches and chipped a tooth.
"If he would have been playing, maybe he would have hit a couple of those 3s," Izzo said. "I don't want to win because of another team's injury, but I'm sure that hurt them some."
Sampson said losing Najera for a stretch was important. "But that's the way it goes sometimes," he said. "You take your hits and just keep playing hard, and we did that."
While Cleaves struggled on offense, Andre Hutson had 12 points, Peterson 11 and A.J. Granger 10 for the Spartans. Johnson had 12, while Ryan Humphrey had 10 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma, which had been the lowest seed remaining in the tournament.
Michigan State has won 19 straight when holding opponents to fewer than 60 points.
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