Cleaves weaves own brand of title magic

Michigan State floor leader gets last laugh on critics with NCAA championship

April 05, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mateen Cleaves cupped his right hand over his mouth in disbelief and cried.

After Michigan State's 89-76 victory over Florida for the national championship Monday night, Cleaves stood side-by-side with coach Tom Izzo on the court, watching in amazement as the highlights of this year's NCAA tournament flashed on an RCA Dome big screen.

Guess who represented the lasting image?

It was a night in which Cleaves seemed to make all the right decisions. It was a night that confirmed all of Cleaves' previous decisions.

He was second-guessed when he chose to come back for his senior season. He was second-guessed when he boldly predicted a national championship two weeks ago. He was second-guessed on whether he could break Florida's much-hyped full-court press.

"This is as storybook as it gets for Mateen," Izzo said. "He has lived his dream."

The Spartans' senior point guard dissolved the Gators' pressure with his dribble and desire. He set up his teammates for shots and knocked down open ones himself. He even endured a sprained right ankle in the second half, determined to turn around a disappointing tournament into a crowning moment of his career.

Cleaves left his imprint on NCAA tournament history, as the Final Four's Most Valuable Player gutted it out with 18 points and four assists to guide Michigan State to its first national championship since 1979. The Spartans (32-7) will be remembered as one of the most dominating teams in tournament history, winning six games by double digits and by an average of 16.3 points.

"One thing coach [Izzo] has always taught me was to keep a level head no matter how tough times get on or off the court," Cleaves said. "Hard work pays off."

Magic Johnson ran the point for the Spartans' last championship team, and Cleaves brought his own tinge of mysticism as well. The Indianapolis Star's front-page headline read: "Mateen magic."

The Flint, Mich., native registered 10 points and four assists in the opening 11 minutes as Michigan State ran out to a 29-20 lead, never trailing the entire game.

Florida cut the deficit to 50-44 and appeared to be making a serious run when Cleaves took a hard spill with 16: 18 remaining in the game. Going for a layup, Cleaves exchanged shoves with Teddy Dupay, the two got locked up and Cleaves rolled his ankle on an awkward landing.

"We got tangled up," Dupay said. "By no means did I want to hurt him."

Cleaves attempted to stand, but his right ankle gave way immediately. He crawled toward the bench, writhing in pain.

Cleaves only missed 4 1/2 minutes, rushing to the trainers' room to get retaped and put on a brace. During his absence, backup swingman Mike Chappell scored five points as the lead inched to 58-50, when Cleaves returned with 11: 51 remaining.

But it wasn't about points when Cleaves rejoined the lineup to a resounding standing ovation. It was about his will to erase the past two games in which he missed 14 of 19 shots while recording three assists and nine turnovers.

Cleaves didn't turn the ball over in the final 11 minutes and set two mean picks, allowing Morris Peterson and A. J. Granger open three-pointers.

"Mateen is our toughest player," Izzo said. "I knew if his ankle wasn't broken, he was going back in."

Cleaves wasn't the only one making all the right moves.

Izzo liberally substituted, negating Florida's advantage of going 10 players deep. Michigan State's reserves, who had supplied five points over the previous four games, contributed 16 points in 47 minutes.

He devised a simple yet effective way to strip down the Gators' press. Plus, he only had one day to relay his instructions to his players.

The plan seemed as though it was sketched by Izzo's best friend, San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci. The Spartans wanted to quickly inbound the ball to a teammate on the sideline who would try to pass it to Cleaves down the middle on sort of a post pattern.

"I really do have a lot of confidence in him," Izzo said. "We did try to hit him on the second pass a lot of times. If we didn't attack it, it was going to clamp down on us eventually."

Said Florida coach Billy Donovan: "We had to gamble. We watched a lot of tape. But I did not see one team press them all year long. Obviously, there's a good reason teams didn't press them."

By game's end, Cleaves danced and hugged his teammates.

It was a celebration of overcoming 11 weeks lost because of a stress fracture earlier this season. It was a reward for holding off on millions from the NBA. It was vindication for the criticism over his tournament slump.

Then, Cleaves found his mother through the crowd and gave her a long embrace.

"Mom," Cleaves whispered in her ear, "I won a national championship."

Easy street

Michigan State became the first team since the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to win all their games by double figures. The Spartans' margin of victory (16.3 points) is the third best over that 15-year span. A look at the top five over that period, along with the number of double-digit victories (DDV):

Year Team DDV Margin

1996 Kentucky 4 21.5

1990 UNLV 4 18.7

2000 Mich. State 6 16.3

1993 N. Carolina 3 15.6

1995 UCLA 4 14.3

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