Say cheese, Mich. State

Spartans to meet Wis. after closing fast to top Iowa State, 75-64

Only No. 1 seed in Final 4

With 20-3 run, Mich. St. again saves best for last

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The "magical" trip continues.

Michigan State took another step closer to its first national championship since the days of Magic Johnson, proving it still has some late tricks of its own.

For the third straight NCAA tournament game, the top-seeded Spartans rallied from a late second-half deficit, finishing with a 20-3 run in a 75-64 victory over second-seeded Iowa State in the Midwest Regional final last night.

Michigan State (30-7) trailed by seven points with 5: 49 remaining before holding the Cyclones to one basket the rest of the way. Iowa State (32-5) failed to extend the nation's longest winning streak of 10 games as well as maintain its composure at the end.

Two wins away from capturing their first NCAA championship since 1979, the Spartans celebrated their second straight trip to the Final Four before a raucous Palace of Auburn Hills crowd of 21,214, who chanted "We want cheese" at the end. They face Big Ten rival Wisconsin in the national semifinals Saturday as the lone surviving No. 1 seed.

How improbable was the comeback? The Cyclones were 30-0 when holding the lead with five minutes remaining. They hadn't lost a game in regulation since Nov. 28.

So, what's the secret behind these Spartans?

"It's hard to explain, it's like we refuse to lose," said Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves, who wore the cut-down net around his neck and predicted a national championship on a post-game interview on national television. "When we get down, we pull together. When you got guys who think like that, you're going to be tough to beat."

Iowa State missed eight of its last nine shots and its All-America center Marcus Fizer was silenced to two points in the final 12: 25.

The Cyclones battled themselves more than Michigan State for most of the night. They turned the ball over 19 times, one shy of their season worst, negating a 38-27 edge on the boards over the nation's top rebounding team. They allowed 18 points off those turnovers and their fast-break attack stalled, producing two points.

"Obviously, we're extremely disappointed," said a teary-eyed Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy, who was ejected when he stormed at the officials with 9.9 seconds left. "The team we were playing had a lot to do with the way we played and how the game ended. They're the best team in the country."

And the Spartans have proved that with an encore of their comeback win over Syracuse two days ago, when they ended with 17 unanswered points. Still, they increased the degree of difficulty last night.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was whistled for a technical with just under six minutes left and Kantra Horton hit the free throws to raise the Cyclones' lead to 59-52.

Collared with his fourth foul, Cleaves started yelling at his teammates. Morris Peterson hung his head. And Charlie Bell couldn't hit a shot.

It appeared that the Flint, Mich., natives, whose nickname is "The Flintstones," were Yabba, Dabba, Done.

But Peterson drained a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 61-58. Then, Bell converted both free throws and knocked down a pull-up jumper on the next possession after missing eight of 10 shots, lifting the Spartans to a 62-61 lead with 2: 58 left.

After a timeout, Peterson used a baseline screen by A. J. Granger to slam down an alley-oop pass from Cleaves and Michigan State was flying at 64-61.

"We drew that up in the timeout," Granger said. "We wanted a `for sure' shot. You can't get more `for sure' than that."

Peterson, the Midwest Regional MVP, and Granger each scored 18, and center Andre Hutson added 17 points and 11 rebounds.

"I think this is the most incredible game I've ever been involved with at Michigan State," Izzo said. "These guys, you know why they're special. They reached down when they had nothing left."

After two Peterson free throws, the Cyclones did narrow the gap to 67-64 on a NBA-range three-pointer by Michael Nurse. But Peterson hit two more from the stripe to expand the lead back to five. With 9.9 seconds left, Fizer fouled out trying to rebound his three-point miss and the emotions got away from Eustachy, who charged the referees at midcourt and was thrown out after two technical fouls.

"I know what you want me to say, but I have no comment," said Eustachy, who could face disciplinary action by the NCAA. "It's unfortunate what happened. We just wanted to win so badly. I apologized to my team, but I'm not going to apologize for my actions."

Eustachy spared himself the burden of watching the Spartans hit all six free throws to close out the game and the Palace erupt into a block party. The sea of green-clad fans flapped newspapers with the headline: "Final Four: On to Indy" and the Spartans waved four fingers high into the air.

"The first technical was for excessive demonstrations and cursing," referee Curtis Shaw said. "The second technical was for coming out on the floor and being outside the coaching box. By rule, the two technical fouls result in an ejection. We don't have any choice."

The frustration built after Iowa State went on a 7-1 run and rolled out to a 59-52 lead, capped by Izzo's technical. But unlike Iowa State, the Spartans remained focused.

They started the second half by misfiring on 16 of their first 22 shots and finished by hitting four of their final five. In its past two tournament games, Michigan State has outscored its opponents 35-3 in the final five minutes.

"This is the strangest game I've ever played in," Cleaves said. "We've been down before, but I don't know if we've ever been down that much before."

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