ST. LOUIS -- Mateen Cleaves, who promised a Big Ten-type football game, delivered a show-stopping hit that helped turn Michigan State's Midwest Regional semifinal game against Oklahoma last night.
When Cleaves ran fullback-like into an Eduardo Najero pick 10 minutes into the second half, the collision left both players sprawled on the court during a 10-minute delay. Najera fell face-down, out cold. Although he eventually returned, it was Oklahoma that never recovered.
"That ranks among the top hits I've had," Cleaves said after top-seeded Michigan State outlasted the 13th-seeded Sooners, 54-46, at the Trans World Dome. "I didn't see him coming. It felt like I ran into a wall."
Cleaves, a former high school quarterback, returned three minutes later to hit a jump shot and two free throws. Najera, bleeding profusely from the chin, returned five minutes later and never scored again.
In a game that featured 35 fouls and a night-long siege on the boards, the collision helped propel the Spartans into tomorrow's region final against the winner of Kentucky-Miami of Ohio.
"It wasn't anyone's fault," said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, "but it was a tough break for Oklahoma because our kid got the worst of it."
Najera suffered a Grade I concussion, a bruised breastbone, a laceration of the chin that required six stitches and a chipped tooth, according to Oklahoma trainer Alex Brown. X-rays were negative.
The day before the game, Cleaves had described the Spartans' style in football terms, saying they play "smashmouth" basketball.
Michigan State's 21st consecutive win was nothing less. The Spartans wore down the Sooners in the second half with their tenacious defense and relentless rebounding. They survived a horrid 3-for-14 shooting night by Cleaves, their inspirational leader. And they had three players finish the game with four fouls.
The more physical the play, the better the Spartans like it.
"We're kind of used to it, playing in the Big Ten conference," said senior forward Antonio Smith. "We'll take the fast break or beat the crap out of each other."
Although Cleaves delivered the knockout blow on Najera, it was Smith's defense that contributed heavily to a 7-point game for Oklahoma's scoring leader.
"We were really contesting his three-point shot," Smith said, "not giving him open looks. It was a team effort. The guards had to step in and pressure him so he didn't get open looks."
Michigan State got only seven points out of its fast break game, and hit more three-point shots (six) than Oklahoma (four), which thrives on the three. To complete a game of role reversal, Oklahoma had more offensive rebounds than Michigan State, which finished second in the nation in rebounding margin.
The Spartans were the ones on the ropes in the first half when Oklahoma held a 19-16 advantage on the boards. Michigan State was fortunate to hold a 26-25 lead, accomplished when Cleaves hit his first basket of the game in the final second of the half.
"In the second half we let Mateen penetrate a little more," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "And we wanted to stop their penetration."
Oklahoma (22-11) waged a war of attrition in the second half. Ryan Humphrey, the Sooners' top rebounder, went out with his fourth personal foul with 12 minutes left. Two minutes after that, they lost Najera.
Still, Oklahoma had the wherewithal to climb within four points in the final two minutes. Michigan State went without a field goal in the last five minutes of the game, but converted nine of 10 free throws to preserve the lead.
Two free throws by Andre Hutson (12 points) and another by Morris Peterson (11) opened a 50-43 lead for Michigan State with 32.1 seconds left.
Pub Date: 3/20/99