Returning Seniors Carried Spartans To Championship
 
 
 
Michigan State's A.J. Granger dunks the ball over Florida's Udonis Haslem.
 
Michigan State's A.J. Granger dunks the ball over Florida's Udonis Haslem.
 
 

April 3, 2000

By STEVE HERMAN
AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Mateen Cleaves and the rest of Michigan State's tournament-tested seniors weren't satisfied with reaching the Final Four.

The Spartans lost in the semifinals last year, and Cleaves and forward Morris Peterson passed up a chance to leave early for the NBA for an opportunity to get that elusive NCAA title.

They got it Monday night with a 89-76 victory over Florida.

Cleaves, who left briefly in the second half with a sprained ankle, had 18 points and was named the tourney MVP.

Michigan State started Cleaves, Peterson, senior A.J. Granger and juniors Andre Hutson and Charlie Bell. The last time three seniors started for one team in the championship game was in 1995, when Ed O'Bannon, George Zidek and Tyus Edney started for winner UCLA and Elmer Martin, Clint McDaniel and Corey Beck started for runner-up Arkansas.

"I think our experience definitely got us to this point," Peterson said.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo was glad Cleaves and Peterson returned for their final season.

"I think what Mateen has done, he has made people realize that college is fun, and I appreciated the (former Michigan State) players that came back to tell him to stay. I didn't tell him anything like that. I told him he's got to do what's best for him, but I think in the future - I know for Michigan State - it will have an impact on people."

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NERVOUS? NOT A CHANCE: Mateen Cleaves' mother appeared to be praying from her seat in the stands, across the court from the Spartans bench. And that was even before he left the game with a sprained ankle.

"I do that off and on during the game because I don't want any of the kids to get hurt. But I'm real confident this is our game. We deserve it," Frances Cleaves said at halftime.

Her concern was justified.

Early in the second half, Mateen injured his ankle - the same foot he broke before the season started - and missed just over four minutes while he had it taped in the locker room.

When she saw her son come back onto the court, Frances Cleaves said, she thought, "Thank you, Lord. I knew if there was any way possible for him to come back, he would, because that's the kind of kid he is."

Cleaves' mother, who lives in Flint, Mich., said she attended every game he played throughout high school and college.

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EVEN-YEAR STREAK: Florida's loss ended a streak of NCAA champions from the Southeastern Conference in every even-numbered year since 1994.

Arkansas won the title in 1994 and Kentucky was the champion in 1996 and 1998. Florida beat Arkansas and split a pair of games with Kentucky this season.

Gators coach Billy Donovan, 34, was trying to become the third-youngest coach to win an NCAA crown. The youngest was Indiana's Branch McCracken, who was 31 in 1940, when the Hoosiers won the first of their five NCAA championships, and Wisconsin's Harold Foster, was 34 in 1941, the last time the Badgers reached the Final Four before this year.

"I've been fortunate to be around a lot of good coaches and a lot of good people throughout my life. But I don't look at myself as being maybe a new-breed coach," said Donovan, who played on the Rick Pitino-coached Providence team that reached the Final Four in 1987. "I think people maybe say that because of my being 34 years old."

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ALMOST AUTOMATIC: Florida's Kenyan Weaks, the team's only senior, missed as many free throws in the semifinals as he did all season.

Going into the Gators' semifinal against North Carolina, Weaks was 52-for-55 (.945) from the foul line but was just 1-for-4 in 18 minutes off the bench on Saturday. He did not attempt a free throw in the championship game.

Michigan State's Morris Peterson made his first 18 free throws in the tournament before missing late in the first half. He finished with 21 points, including 4-of-6 free throws.

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SECOND MATCHUP: The championship game Monday night was the second time Michigan State played Florida in basketball.

The only other meeting was on Dec. 30, 1987, when Florida beat Michigan State 83-59 at the Fiesta Bowl Classic in Tucson, Ariz.

They also played this year in football, with the Spartans winning 37-34 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

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STRONG FINISHES: In the regular season, Michigan State used quick starts for an average halftime advantage of more than 10 points, double their average margin for the second half.

The trend was reversed in the tournament, however, with strong second halves making the difference for the Spartans.

Through six tournament games, Michigan outscored its opponents by a combined 17 points in the first half but by 75 points after the break.

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HIGH SCORING: The 89 points by Michigan State were the most in a championship game since UCLA's 89-78 victory over Arkansas in 1995.

The combined 49.6 percent shooting by Michigan State and Florida was the best in a title game since Kansas and Oklahoma combined for .520 in 1988.