Mich. State takes steam out of Florida press; Spartans shoot 56 percent to counteract 14 turnovers; Cleaves 'is really tough'; NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP


INDIANAPOLIS -- Florida guard Kenyan Weaks forced Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves to the sideline deep in his own backcourt, then proceeded to tip the ball out of bounds.

That play happened with about 13 minutes left in the first half, and although the Spartans retained possession, it was one of the few times the Gators' full-court press had any success.

And it still did not produce a turnover.

The Gators' press, which carried the team through the NCAA tournament by wearing out the opponent at the end of the game, turned out to be part of its downfall in last night's 89-76 loss to Michigan State in the national title game.

Cleaves broke the press with ease most of the time, setting up either easy shots for himself or his teammates, both in the paint and behind the three-point line, or just running the half-court offense. Either way, that usually led to good things happening for the Spartans, who shot 55.9 percent for the game.

Florida coach Billy Donovan knew what the Spartans were doing, and explained it to his team, but the Gators could not execute well enough to stop them.

"When the ball got inbounded to Charlie Bell, [I wanted] them to wait, deny Cleaves the ball, and force Bell to bring it up, then trap him," Donovan said. "What they did a good job of was they kept flashing guys up the sidelines -- Morris Peterson and [Andre] Hutson."

Then there were times when Cleaves would simply outrun the Florida defense on the way to an easy basket. Or Michigan State went over the top and completed a baseball pass for a layup. The press forced only four turnovers in the first half while the Spartans shot 52.9 percent.

"At times, he [Cleaves] just outran our guards," Donovan said. "He was just faster, and that's when they got some easy baskets."

So the question of whether Florida's press would eventually wear down Michigan State late never became a factor.

The Gators had to back out of it with about 10 minutes left in the first half for a couple of possessions, drawing an ovation from the Spartans' fans.

"We didn't want to sit around and hold the ball and try to get trapped," Bell said. "We just really wanted to move the ball, get it in Mateen's hands or my hands so we can try to make things happen."

By the time the full-court pressure was supposed to be most effective, late in the second half, the game was already out of reach.

"We didn't have the type of intensity we have a lot of times," said Gators guard Justin Hamilton. "That's not to take anything away from them. Cleaves is really tough, and he did a good job ball-handling. We didn't sustain energy."

Those segments came in the second half, when the Gators did force 10 turnovers. Cleaves went down with 16 minutes left with an ankle sprain, and although Florida didn't shave any points off what was a six-point deficit, it was able to force a few turnovers on attempted inbounds passes.

But the seniors for Michigan State, Cleaves and Peterson in particular, were the difference. Cleaves came back with 11 minutes left, and went on to keep the game at a double-digit lead throughout.

Cleaves and Peterson combined for 39 points and 14-for-25 shooting, many of them high-percentage shots.

Donovan said no one dared to press Michigan State all year, and now he knows why.

"We had a gamble. We watched a lot of tape," Donovan said. "I did not see one team press them all year long, probably obviously for a good reason. Once we figured out what they were doing, we just had a very difficult time taking those thing away. I think that's a tribute to Charlie Bell, Cleaves and Morris Peterson."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad