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Later, Gator

Florida plays its game, right into the hands of a mature Michigan State team in a national title game loss.

[AP photo]
Florida players look on from the bench late in the second half.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- It happened so fast.

Florida was riding the wave as college basketball's youngest, brashest, fastest-playing phenomenon. A chance to win the national championship was right in front of it.

Michigan State blew right past.

An experienced team on a mission, Michigan State gave Florida a lesson in playing up-tempo in an 89-76 victory at the RCA Dome on Monday, winning the NCAA title for the second time in school history. The title game was the Gators' first.

"It's definitely a difficult loss," UF sophomore Mike Miller said. "We wanted to win. But we went against a lot of odds. For a team that was young and didn't know what to expect coming into the situation, we did a great job."

Perfect in NCAA championship games, the Spartans first won in 1979 with guard Magic Johnson, who was in the stands Monday night wearing a green MSU sweatshirt. An equally endearing guard led the way this time, as senior Mateen Cleaves scored 18 points despite playing the final 12 minutes on a badly turned ankle and was named Most Oustanding Player of the Final Four.

"The guy has the heart of a lion," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "This is as storybook as it gets for Mateen. He has lived his dream. This is more overwhelming than I thought it would be."

Miller, contemplating a jump to the NBA, was barely involved in the Florida offense, adding a 2-of-5 shooting effort to his 3-of-13 performance in the semifinal victory against North Carolina. In the final, half of his 10 points came at the free-throw line.

"We just didn't execute," he said.

Michigan State (32-7) said all along it relished the chance to play an up-tempo team in the final. Running and gunning was their preference. The Gators obliged, sticking to their strategy of trying to fatigue opponents with harassing fullcourt pressure and 10-player depth.

Neither was a factor.

"We took a gamble," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "We watched a lot of tape, and we didn't see one team press them all year long. Once we figured out what they were doing to beat the press, we had a very difficult time taking those things away."

photo
[AP photo]
Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves celebrates with the trophy.

Michigan State was the first team in the NCAA Tournament to make Florida look young. Even worse, it made the Gators look a step slow. The Spartans routinely sliced through UF's press for easy baskets, roared down the court on fastbreaks and -- just for kicks -- made 11 of 22 three-point baskets.

"The press was completely ineffective," UF freshman guard Justin Hamilton said. "That's what we like to do, and when it's ineffective it really hurts us."

Michigan State did not commit its first turnover until the 8:05 mark of the first half, when Cleaves had the ball poked away from behind by Brett Nelson after the Spartans had beaten the press. By then, MSU already was pulling away, 29-20.

Michigan State hit 7 of 11 shots, including two layups against the press, for a 17-11 lead in the first five minutes. Florida freshman point guard Brett Nelson trimmed the margin to 19-17 with three-point baskets on consecutive trips. Then, coming out of a timeout, the Gators tried to slow Michigan State's attack by switching to zone defense.

That didn't work, either.

Sparked by a pair of three-pointers by Cleaves, not normally a long-range threat, the Spartans went on a 14-3 run for their biggest lead of the half, 33-20, with 6:51 left.

MSU led 43-32 at halftime.

Florida (29-8) used its fullcourt press to mount a second-half run, forcing 11 turnovers and converting easy baskets. Florida's Kenyan Weaks made a three-pointer to cut it to 55-49 with 12:39 to play, but MSU senior A.J. Granger hit a three at the other end to push the lead back to nine. Florida never got that close again.

"The press put us in position to get back in the game," Donovan said. "But every time we made a run they answered. That's the sign of a great basketball team."

Michigan State's senior trio of Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Granger combined for 58 points, led by Peterson's 21. Florida center Udonis Haslem led all scorers with 27.

"Everybody was talking about their will to win," Haslem said of MSU's seniors. "They definitely stepped up and showed what everybody was talking about."

Cleaves, MSU's floor general and emotional leader, left the game with 16:18 left in the second half after turning his right ankle in a collision with Florida guard Teddy Dupay. Cleaves went to the locker room to have the ankle examined. With 12:51 left, he returned to the court and at 11:51 he checked into the game, limping badly.

MSU still led, 58-50.

While Michigan State celebrated, the Gators sat in a somber locker room.

"We'd love to be back in this situation next year," Miller said. "But there are no guarantees in life. I've always said you need a little luck, but we're going to fight and scrap to get back here next year."

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