April 3, 2000
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Mateen Cleaves crawled along the baseline, his tightly clenched face a window to the excruciating pain.
The Michigan State star surely wondered if his right foot was broken again, the injury that kept him out for the first 13 games of the season. He was expendable then, but not now. Not in the NCAA championship game against Florida.
"They would have had to amputate my leg to get me off the court, baby," Cleaves said.
Amputation wasn't necessary. But he did have a severe sprain after rolling his right foot on a drive to the basket with 16:18 remaining Monday night. He managed to pull himself up and hobble to the locker room.
He wasn't done - and neither were his teammates.
While the trainer furiously taped the ankle outside public scrutiny, Michigan State stretched a tenuous 50-44 lead to 58-50 by the time Cleaves limped back on the court 4:29 later.
His long pass to Morris Peterson for a layup made it 60-50. Cleaves 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, made it 84-66 and put the game away.
As the final seconds ticked away on Michigan State's 89-76 victory, Cleaves could barely make it up and down the court. But he smiled broadly and jogged in place for his mother, showing her that nothing could break his spirit.
"I know he's strong, and I knew his resolve was going to make him come back if he could," Frances Cleaves said. "I knew if there was any way possible for him to come back, he would, because that's the kind of kid he is."
Her son scored 13 points in the first half and helped the Spartans continually beat the feared Florida pressure with his ball handling. He had 18 points when the injury occurred and wouldn't score another, but the rest of the Spartans seemed inspired by his Willis Reed-like return to the court.
"This guy has the heart of a lion," coach Tom Izzo said.
Cleaves got tangled up with Florida's Teddy Dupay while driving to the basket and landed wrong on his right foot after putting up the shot. The whistle already had blown for a foul behind the play, but neither Cleaves nor Dupay could hear the call.
"I thought I hurt it real bad," Cleaves said.
The Michigan State fans booed Dupay, clearly believing he was trying to hurt their star. No way, said Dupay.
"He's a big, physical guy," the Florida guard said. "He's not going to back down and I'm not going to back down. But I wasn't trying to hurt him."
Head trainer Tom Mackowiak - "T-Mac" to the players - sprung into action as soon as Cleaves went down. He knew what to do after working with Cleaves during the rehab from his broken foot.
"He gets emotional," Mackowiak said. "I wanted to let him settle down. I knew there was nothing we could do on the court."
In the meantime, Izzo told the remaining players, "He'll be back. Let's not get our heads down." He switched Charlie Bell to the point and the team didn't miss a step.
"I put the team on my shoulders," Bell said. "For half the year, I ran the team when Mateen was injured. ... We had adversity all year and tonight was no different. We are a team and that is why we're still standing."
Even with a hobble.
Back in the locker room, Mackowiak found no signs of serious injury. He wrapped Cleaves in tape from foot to the mid-calf, then had him test out the ankle in the empty room.
Running. Cutting. Backpedaling. Jumping. Cleaves passed the impromptu test.
"I knew if he could do all that, he could go back to the court," Mackowiak said. "I understand what this meant to him. He's very strong and he has a very strong tolerance for pain."
Cleaves returned to the bench on his heavily taped ankle and told Izzo, "I'm OK." He went back in the game with 11:51 remaining.
"All I wanted to do was leave it on the floor," said Cleaves, a second-team All-American who returned for his senior season for this very moment. "Tonight, we left it on the floor and it was good enough to win."
After Cleaves hobbled out of the raucous locker room with crutches and a championship, Mackowiak was alone in a back cubicle, gathering up his leftover rolls of tape.
"Just doing my job," T-Mac said with a shrug.