Fla., Mich. St. at last hurdle in survival test

Perseverance is why MSU vets, young Gators are last of 64 standing

April 03, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The national championship may not be won by a last shot, but by the last team standing.

Michigan State and Florida have defined this NCAA men's basketball tournament with tenacity more than talent. Instead of outshooting opponents, they have outlasted them to persevere into tonight's NCAA final.

So, CBS should trash the "One Shining Moment" song for the final highlights package tonight. "Another One Bites the Dust" would be more appropriate.

"It's all about surviving at the end," Michigan State forward Morris Peterson said. "I know our gas tank is on F. We're not ready to run out just yet."

The Spartans (31-7) have had enough experience to shrug off late-game pressure, outscoring their past three opponents 48-15 in the final five minutes. The Gators (29-7), meanwhile, wither teams with relentless pressure and a fast-paced attack, totaling a 48-19 run in the last six minutes.

Different styles. Different personnel. Same results.

Will senior-dominated Michigan State break the new kids on the block? Or will Florida break the Spartans with its full-court press and endless bench?

"I don't know if we'll be able to wear Michigan State down," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose tactics were passed down from his assistant days under Rick Pitino. "They are deeper than most teams we've seen recently. They have seniors and can probably handle the 40 minutes the way we're going to play. Hey, we might not press at the beginning or at different points in the game."

Michigan State doesn't confront challenges. The Spartans adapt to them.

The Big Ten champions beat a more physical Syracuse team. They beat a more athletic Iowa State team. They beat a more patient Wisconsin team.

Point guard Mateen Cleaves has struggled recently, but has the grit to split traps. Shooting guard Charlie Bell is another option to bypass the press, playing the point when Cleaves was injured earlier this season. And Peterson hasn't shied from dribbling past defenders.

Plus, the Spartans' starters won't panic, having combined to play in 596 games. Florida, which starts three sophomores and a freshman, has only experienced 277 games.

"We're seniors, this is our last go-around," Cleaves said. "We've just got to go out there hungry because we don't have another chance. If they don't win, they have another chance to get here. So we should have extra motivation because this is our last chance."

Said Gators sophomore guard Teddy Dupay: "I don't think experience will be an issue. It's going to be played between the lines. Players got to make plays."

Oh, Florida has players, lots of them. The Gators go 10 deep, including seven underclassmen, with each averaging at least 14 minutes.

Depth fuels the press, as they tirelessly send waves of fresh defenders. If teams maneuver around the Gators, they will continue to chase and "back tip," knocking balls loose from behind.

They force an average of 19 turnovers, but sometimes it's less about cause and more about effect.

Florida pushes the tempo, tempting teams to rush their shots more. The Gators also enjoy counting the number of weary legs more than turnovers at the end of the game.

"You see opposing point guards who, at the beginning of the game, are trying to dribble through your press," Dupay said. "They have big egos. Then we'll see them holding their shorts or walking back to the huddle. We're running back to our huddle like: Come on guys, we've got them tired."

Donovan's high-charged philosophy, known as "Billy Ball," is geared to generate more shots for the Gators and harass opponents out of their game plan.

But Michigan State seems more eager to battle a racehorse than a mule. The Spartans found themselves frustrated two days ago, when they struggled against Wisconsin's slow-down, stubborn approach.

"There's no coaching secrets to this, we're going to attack their press, too," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "We're going to try to score on it. We like to run too, so maybe some of that is our style. It might work to their advantage and it might work to ours."

Michigan State, which relies on little production from its bench, isn't too concerned about fading down the stretch either. The Spartans haven't faced a deeper team than Florida, but they endured more difficult situations.

Primarily using their starters, they rallied from sizable second-half deficits against Utah, Syracuse and Iowa State in the tournament.

"I really believe it's a mental toughness," Izzo said. "I think some people get tired as the game goes on and some people get stronger. I think we've said it a lot: Players play and tough players win. That's the motto we've hung with."

Now, it's just one game, and one team able to survive.

"Everybody has dreamt about this since we were kids, to play for a national championship," said Peterson, who has scored 60 of his 84 points in the second half of his NCAA tournament games this year. "So, there's no reason why we can't suck it up for one more game. At this point, everybody's physically and emotionally drained. That's what makes this tournament so special. You only have one team left standing."

NCAA men's championship

At RCA Dome, Indianapolis

Tonight's title game

Florida (29-7) vs. Michigan State (31-7), 9: 18 p.m.

The line: Mich. St. by 4

TV coverage: Chs. 13, 9

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