Worth the wait: MSU vs. Florida

April 02, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

INDIANAPOLIS -- From Wisconsin to Florida. From stifling half-court defense to suffocating full-court pressure. From one extreme to the other.

Michigan State, the most versatile offensive team in the country, will face its most difficult challenge tomorrow night in the final of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Florida.

Youthful, relentless, exhausting Florida.

"The on last night. They rallied from an 18-3 deficit for a 50-46 lead with 13: 32 left.

But again, the Gators were just getting started.

Using a 10-man rotation, they overwhelmed North Carolina just as they overwhelmed Duke, another ACC opponent with limited depth.

By the end of their 71-59 triumph, they had the Tar Heels frazzled and reeling from foul trouble.

"Fatigue was a factor," Carolina center Brendan Haywood said. "We play six guys, sometimes seven. Some of their guys play 15 minutes a game, and we play 30 minutes a game. It's going to be a factor because they have more energy."

It was apparent in the Sweet 16, when the Gators outscored Duke 14-0 at the end of the game. It was apparent last night, when they outscored Carolina 25-9 after Ed Cota picked up his fourth foul with 13: 18 left.

Florida coach Bill Donovan is a Rick Pitino disciple, and this is the fourth time in five years that a team with Pitino's pressing style will play for the NCAA championship.

Donovan, 34, wasn't even alive when North Carolina's Bill Guthridge began his coaching career. If he beats Michigan State, he will be the youngest coach in 59 years to win the NCAA title.

The question now is how much Florida's style will disrupt Michigan State, a team that also relies heavily on its five starters, but has grown stronger in the second half throughout this tournament.

"They're a team that can play any way you want," Donovan said. "You want to run and press and go up-and-down, they can do that. If you want to sit down and play half-court, they obviously displayed that against Wisconsin."

Can Michigan State win tomorrow night if it shoots poorly? Well, the Spartans shot only 34.8 percent against Wisconsin, going the final 11: 37 of twhich the Badgers led 21-17 at halftime.

FDR probably turned off his radio in disgust.

The MSU guards wound up shooting a combined 3-for-16. The team's 2-for-14 effort from three-point range wound up being the second-lowest percentage for a national semifinal game.

No wonder Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was worried about his team's mental state at halftime, saying the players needed a "kiss-and-hug" session rather than his usual lecture.

Duly comforted, the Spartans rallied behind 1e two best teams remain.

The Spartans' slow start last night was familiar -- in their three previous NCAA games, they trailed Utah by six points, Syracuse by 14 and Iowa State by six with under five minutes left.

It won't matter if they fall behind Florida. And it won't matter if they get ahead.

"If we get down 10 or 12 points in any game, that's not a big thing," Florida freshman Brett Nelson said. "With our style of play, we can get a few steals, knock down a few threes and cut the lead e tempo changed when Nelson hit two jumpers after Carolina took the lead in the second half.

"That made the game a lot faster," Donovan said. "We got a couple of steals, got a 10-second count. You could see at about 10 minutes they appeared to be a little tired."

As surely as it happened to Duke, it happened to Carolina.

Now comes the ultimate challenge for the ravenous Gators, and the final hurdle for the resilient Spartans.

One last game. One last drama. Florida-Michigan State.

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