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Bill Kwon

Sports Watch

By Bill Kwon

Tuesday, April 4, 2000

Michigan St. deserving
of national title

IN these times when even freshmen leave their colleges early for the NBA, it has to be rewarding for fans and coaches to see Michigan State win the NCAA men's basketball championship.

The Spartans' storybook season came to a happy ending.

"This is what I came back for," Mateen Cleaves told a national TV audience after the Spartans defeated the Florida Gators, 89-76, last night in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Cleaves, a 6-foot-2 point guard and the team's emotional leader, returned for his senior year with the express purpose of winning the national championship after last year's disappointing loss in the semifinals to Duke.

He made it his personal mission, seemingly willing the Spartans to make it all the way.

Despite being hobbled by a sprained ankle, Cleaves earned the Final Four's MVP honors with his courageous play and floor leadership. He had a lot of help from his teammates, including fellow seniors Morris Peterson, Mateen's buddy since elementary school days, and A.J. Granger.

As it turned out, not only did the Spartans beat Billy Donovan's Gators at their own up-tempo game, they also got better scoring productivity from their bench, supposedly Florida's strength.

Jason Richardson contributed nine points, while Mike Chappell came up with perhaps the biggest 3-pointer of the game.

"He hit a big 3. I thought that was a very important shot," said Rainbow coach Riley Wallace, who attended his 29th consecutive Final Four.

CLEAVES had just limped out of the game with 18:16 remaining in the second half and the Gators had cut the lead to six. But Chappell nailed his trey and the young Gators never got closer.

And Florida's vaunted full-court press never bothered the Spartans.

"Early on, Cleaves got two quick baskets on easy layups and Florida backed off after that," Wallace said.

"Michigan State was well-prepared for the press. They found a way to break it and they had the athletes to do it."

Unlike the sluggish semifinal victory over Wisconsin in which they went scoreless for 12 minutes, the Spartans shot a torrid 56 percent from the floor and never trailed.

And when Cleaves had to step up his game, he did.

"He's done it for four years, not one," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo.

And that's what made Michigan State's victory so much more meaningful for college hoop fans.

"It was good for college basketball to happen that way (Michigan State winning)," Wallace said.

"Florida has a lot of young kids. They have a chance to come back next year."

WITH only one senior in their 10-deep rotation, the Gators figure to be back in the Final Four again next year in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Their sharpshooting star, Mike Miller, is a sophomore and might think he's ready for the NBA. But he definitely needs another year of under his belt. Miller got off only five attempts against the Spartans, who put a lot of pressure on the Gators' perimeter shooters.

Miller and the other of Billy's Kids got an up-close-and-personal look at what it takes to win a national championship.

It's called commitment.

Cleaves saw his commitment rewarded in leading the Spartans, not only back to the Final Four, but helping them to win it all this season.

"He could have gone pro," Wallace said. "But he stayed with his teammates, he stayed with his coach and he stayed with his university."

That's what Michigan State had last night -- staying power.

Bill Kwon has been writing
about sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1959.

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