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Peterson ignites MSU in grand style

MICHIGAN ST. 53, WISCONSIN 41: With his recently deceased grandmother in mind, Morris Peterson's inspirational 2nd half sends the Spartans to 1st final since '79.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- After every field goal he made Saturday, Michigan State senior Morris Peterson pointed skyward, a heartfelt gesture for his recently deceased grandmother.

"I just wanted to go out and play for her," said Peterson of Clara Mae Spencer, who died last weekend and was buried Thursday. "I just wanted to try to make an extra effort to let her know that I feel her presence."

He sure made that point clearly.

To her.

To his teammates.

To the Wisconsin Badgers.

After a poor-shooting, lethargic first-half, Peterson hit 6 of 10 shots to finish with a game-high 20 points, leading the Spartans to a 53-41 win over Wisconsin in the national semifinals before 43,116 at the RCA Dome.

The Spartans (31-7), the lone top seed to reach the Final Four, plays Monday night in their first title game appearance since Magic Johnson outdueled Larry Bird to win in 1979.

"I'm just pleased and feel fortunate that we're moving on because we beat a good team," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "And I'm pleased for the three seniors that they get the chance that they've been looking for 363 days or however long it is since the Duke game."

Actually, it was on March 27, 1999, that the Spartans lost in a national semifinal in St. Petersburg, which is when they set a goal to go further this year.

And they can thank an inspired Peterson.

"He wanted the ball and very seldom does Pete ask for the ball," Izzo said. "I think that's my fault because as a freshman I used to kid him about how many shots he took. We kind of molded him and worked with him. Now, he's almost too unselfish."

After Michigan State opened a 17-8 lead with 10:01 left in the first half, the Badgers' physical, relentless defense took over and held Michigan State to two free throws the rest of half. The Spartans' lead had dwindled to 19-17.

"We kind of got dysfunctional out there," Mateen Cleaves said.

The 19 points were a season-low for the Spartans and the 36 combined first-half points were the sixth worst in Final Four history. For the record, Wisconsin led Washington State 21-17 at the half of the 1941 championship game, Wisconsin's last Final Four appearance.

But then the Badgers, fourth nationally in scoring defense, can rattle a team ... and no team knows that better than Michigan State, which was looking to beat the Badgers for the fourth time this season.

"That stretch we had when we didn't score any baskets, we were taking too many threes for this team," Izzo said. "I knew it was getting frustrating. The players were actually a little down at halftime. That's why we didn't have our normal halftime. We kind of had a little kiss-and-hug halftime."

So instead of a fiery speech, Izzo talked about making subtle little adjustments, beginning with getting the ball to Peterson more down low so he could better use his athletic ability.

Almost on cue, Peterson started the second half with a putback of his own miss. A few moments later, he scored again off an offensive rebound, followed with a basket inside, hit two free throws and then capped a 13-2 run with a jumper for 32-19 lead.

"I just wanted the ball; I felt like I could make something happen," he said.

After freshman guard Kirk Penney made a three-pointer, Peterson picked up a loose ball at the top of the key and launched a three-pointer just before the shot-clock expired. A few moments later, he swished another three.

For you, grandma.

"When he got those two threes, those were a dagger in our backs, definitely," Wisconsin junior forward Andy Kowske said. "He hit the big shots and that's what put them over the edge."

"When Morris gets hot, it makes our job easier," said Cleaves, who was held to just one field goal and one assist, "because that's when you just concentrate on defense. It's like, don't shoot it, just give him the ball and don't let your man score."

No offense to Wisconsin, but Michigan State does that as well as or better than any team. The Spartans held senior guard Jon Bryant, who had averaged nearly 17 points in the NCAA Tournament and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the West Region, to two points on 1-of-5 shooting.

"Michigan State is clearly a superior team and showed that today," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said. "(Peterson) really got going in the second half and he was the difference."

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