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Peterson elevates Spartans


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- He looks like Will Smith, the actor. Only a lot taller. Michigan State basketball buds call him MoPete. Saturday night, his Spartans scratching for something extraordinary, something definitive, something to hoist them to the Final Four, the Fresh Prince of Flint came flying.

Morris Peterson, who'd been in a shooting funk, became his own heroic setup man. Popping a three-pointer with 4:50 on the clock, shaving Iowa State's lead to 61-58. Tide was turning. It was just a MoPete salad. Meat yet to come.

Michigan State was fighting NCAA Tournament expulsion. Last standing No. 1 seed with the departures of Duke, Arizona and Stanford. Gritting teeth. Waiting for somebody to make a positive difference.

Four of Peterson's teammates operated with four fouls. Playing carefully. One of them, Charlie Bell, made a 12-foot jumper to put the Sparties up 62-61 with 2:50 left.

Palace emotions raged.

Game officials were all but losing control. Repeatedly making highly disputed calls. Both sides angry. Not the sort of work expected in the Elite Eight.

Among a crowd of 21,214, probably 85 percent were pulling for neighborhood favorite MSU. Steam kept spewing. Cops came running to restrain spectators who threatened to storm the aisles.

MSU kept looking for a trend-turner. Something to put the Cyclones on their Big 12 heels. Mateen Cleaves, benched for 70 seconds with foul trouble, came back with a leer. An arrogant triggerman in search of a hammer. Fresh Prince was ready.

Up 62-61, Spartans needed a knockout punch. Peterson wound up. Coming from the left flank, the 6-foot-6 senior elevated with Jordan/Carter style.

Cleaves is a spectacular feeder. He and MoPete are called Flintstones, both MSU aces from the tough blue-collar town of Flint. Mateen lobbed adroitly. Like a bazooka launcher. Yabba Dabba Do.

Two minutes exactly.

Peterson, in awesome flight, put a sure palm on the soaring basketball, then slammed it through the hoop. Right there the Cyclones were KO'd. Michigan State was headed for Indianapolis and a national semifinal against a most surprising but familiar enemy, fellow Big Ten Conference school Wisconsin.

Palace exploded with delight, except for a few red-bedecked Iowa State dozens. After that, it got ugly. So unfortunate. An engaging, fierce competition to be at least semi-spoiled by the ending.

Cyclones coach Larry Eustachy went berserk. One zebra, Lonnie Dixon, whistled the Ames fellow for one technical foul and then another. Eustachy was a battlefield casualty, gone in multiple ways. It was too marvelous an Iowa State season (32-5) to end like that.

Stopping on his way out, Eustachy stood at Michigan State's bench, embracing Spartans coach Tom Izzo. They exchanged words. Friendly like. Just maybe a winner and a loser agreeing that officiating had been at anything but proper Elite Eight standards.

In a bracket-busting March, only the Midwest Region wound up going according to form. Top seed MSU outlasting No. 2. For the Cyclones, a marvelous chance for an upset went down in turnover flames.

All season, MSU (30-7) ruled backboards. Outrebounding all but two opponents. But the Spartans were being shattered beneath the glass by Iowa State. Sadly for the Cys, for every rebound they would blow an opportunity with a turnover.

They were physically sloppy and mentally flawed. After 13 minutes, Iowa State had a shocking 14-2 edge in rebounds, but the score was tied. Jamaal Tinsley, a flashy point guard, was making lots of baskets but was dramatically failing in his area of expertise, creating assists. At that first-half juncture, the Cyclones had 11 turnovers to two for Michigan State.

"We earned ourselves a real shot at Indianapolis, but we frankly stunk against Michigan State's zone defense," ISU guard Michael Nurse said. "They took us out of our game, especially Jamaal. But me, too.

"With the rebound edge we had, our lead should've been 12 to 15 points. Give the credit to the Spartans. They found the defense that could clog our act. What a shame."

MSU's snap-jawed defense stymied Iowa State's biggest threat shot, 6-8 junior Marcus Fizer. Through the first 151/2 minutes, the husky All-American tried just three two-point shots. Eustachy benched him.

"I deserved it," Fizer said. "We couldn't have anybody playing timid, even with my two early fouls." He sat out the remainder of the half, then picked up tempo in the second half. Too little. Too late.

"That final score (75-64) is terribly misleading," Fizer said. "It was ours to take, but Michigan State made the critical plays. I'll never forget that (Peterson) slam."

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