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Amid fires, MSU players survive test

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- There was a hardwood scrum. Syracuse outfighting Michigan State. Seven sweaty bodies scrambled on the Palace court, scratching for one basketball. Then it popped free, like a champagne cork.

Orange point guard Jason Hart, standing alone, retrieved and fired. Zip! Three-pointer! Syracuse, once down 8-1, gushed to a 28-19 lead. With 21,214 in the house, a majority wearing green, the just-north-of-Motown scene got so quiet you could've heard a piston drop.

Home was hurting.

MSU, top seed in the NCAA Midwest Region, especially fortunate to be playing in its neighborhood, plunged into cavernous trouble. Ugly! Spartans coach Tom Izzo called time after Hart's unguarded bazooka. With anger, he benched two players.

One would explode.

A.J. Granger's face went crimson. Neck veins protruded. A bedrock Michigan State senior, along with Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, the 6-foot-9 Ohioan engaged his coach in a sideline debate.

March seemed to be going all too mad for America's second-ranked team. Six minutes remaining in the half. Syracuse sizzling. Granger wheeled away from Izzo, heading off the floor.

Thinking resignation?

Tom Mackowiac, an MSU trainer, impeded the steaming youngster. Granger's frustrations would simmer. Two minutes later, A.J. was in a chair beside Izzo. Getting a coaching earful. Lots of hard swallowing. Soon, a vital senior was sent back to work.

Fires became controlled.

Michigan State would arise from the Auburn Hills deck, dusting off its abilities and egos, slugging back like a champion. Losers in a national semifinal against Duke last year at St. Petersburg, the Spartans couldn't surrender. They'd come too far in 2000 in search of another Final Four.

By recess, Syracuse was solid, ahead by 34-24. "It got real tough in our locker room," point guard Cleaves said. "We knew it was a bad hole we'd dug. As a team, we were all but fighting.

"Somehow, it brought us together. We went back to the floor with amazing determination. We weren't about to go down like chumps. Syracuse had vastly outplayed us for 20 minutes."

Even then, as the second half began, State was still in low gear. Struggling. Searching. After a minute, Syracuse's lead had fattened to 14. It was 40-26. There was more than a scent of a Palace coup.

Cleaves, Peterson and Granger dug deeper. Got grittier. Mo began nailing three-pointers. Granger was charging hard at the 'Cuse, instead of at his coach.

Mateen, having missed his first eight shots, became a masterful creator. Setting up Peterson's open jumpers. Feeding the wiry Granger in the low post. Cleaves, a gifted athlete but without much of a shooting touch, finally made a basket. Then another.

Home-sweet-Spartan-home took full, lethal effect. Orange got squeezed. Eventually crushed. Michigan State, such a misguided mess through the first half, became a full-blown, dominating, top-seeded hoops beauty.

'Cuse was more than excused. A dubious record was extended. No school has won more NCAA Tournament games (39) without ever taking a national championship.

SU left with scorch marks. Over the final 19 minutes, Michigan State achieved a 49-18 massacre.

From the not-so-little Granger blowup it dramatically evolved into a Little Big Horn kind of wipeout. Spartans scored the final 17 points.

"No matter what happens Saturday night (in the Midwest final), I hope the world saw why this is such a special collection of Michigan State players," Izzo said. "Senior push from Mateen, MoPete and A.J. was the key.

"We fussed for a while because we care so much. After these seniors are gone from East Lansing, we'll still have some good basketball talent, but I doubt we'll see another group with this kind of unselfish, competitive toughness."

A couple of weeks ago, the stocky 6-1 Cleaves vowed, "We will win the national championship." Thursday night made him think.

"When you get to the Sweet 16, everything gets harder," said the MSU leader from a hardscrabble town called Flint, just 40 minutes up I-75 from The Palace.

"We've got a lot of seniors, but we still grew a little more against Syracuse. Really got tested, at a point when one defeat ends your season and kills your dream. We're now even better equipped to face the next big exam Saturday night."

Thinking about Indianapolis.

Sure. That's the dream.

Looking ahead?

Nah, not after this one.

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