Mich. State in like Flint; Flint mates Peterson, Cleaves lead rout of Florida for title, 89-76; School's 1st title since '79; Seniors' experience key vs. young Gators; NCAA Championship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- The final episode of "The Flintstones" signed off with a magical ending.

Carried by Flint, Mich., seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, Michigan State carved out another piece of basketball history with an 89-76 triumph over Florida in the men's NCAA tournament final last night at the RCA Dome.

It was the largest margin of victory in the championship game in eight years.

The Spartans (32-7) achieved their first national championship since the Magic Johnson-led team won in 1979, but Michigan State didn't require any special tricks last night.

The Spartans deflated "Billy Ball," the up-and-down style endorsed by Gators coach Billy Donovan, by methodically shredding Florida's high-octane press and contesting its quick-trigger three-point shots.

As the final buzzer sounded, Peterson and Cleaves were the first to rush off the bench. At midcourt, Peterson gave Cleaves a bearhug, hoisting him high in the air before teammates swarmed the childhood friends.

"You just have to leave it out on the floor," said Cleaves, the tournament's MVP, smiling despite walking on crutches after badly spraining his right ankle early in the second half. "Oh, my God, this is why I came back [for a senior season]. We're coming home, Flint."

Cleaves, who had his ankle retaped in the locker room before returning to the game about four minutes later, scored all of his 18 points before the injury. Peterson took over from there, staging another pivotal second half by scoring 16 of his 21 points after the break.

Florida (29-8) simply failed to match the intensity of the veteran Spartans and flinched when its usually disruptive press backfired. The Gators, who rotate four freshmen and three sophomores into their lineup regularly, appeared out past their bedtime, looking ragged with turnovers and failing to capitalize on a superior inside game in the first half.

Florida center Udonis Haslem was dominant with a career-best 27 points, yet the Gators set him up for only 12 shots. Take Haslem out and Florida was 16-for-48 (33.3 percent) from the field.

"Our youth showed at times," Donovan said. "Our guards rushed too many shots, taking the ball away from Haslem. We lost to a better team tonight.

"The difference was their seniors. They made the plays, they made the shots when we got within six or eight points. Every time we made a run, they answered."

Michigan State didn't allow its 43-32 halftime lead to dip below six the entire second half, and sealed the game with a 20-8 run after Florida had crept within 62-54 with nine minutes remaining.

Peterson led the late assault, draining a three-pointer from the left side with Mike Miller in his face to put the Spartans ahead 76-60.

Peterson then led a two-on-one break, dishing off to fellow Flint teammate Charlie Bell, who made the layup while being fouled and then knocked down the free throw.

Peterson rounded out his 1 1/2-minute show with another three-pointer as the margin ballooned to 82-62 with 5: 18 left.

"Pete's one of the rare guys that has improved in all areas," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "When it's time to shine, we really did start going to him.

"It hasn't sunk in what we've accomplished," Izzo added. "The three seniors [Cleaves, Peterson and A. J. Granger], I don't know what I can say to make you believe how special they are."

The sellout crowd of 43,116 provided a fitting curtain call for Michigan State, whose championship road was lined with some painful bumps.

The Spartans, a preseason No. 1 in many publications, endured 11 weeks early in the season without Cleaves and overcame an unexplainable loss to Wright State in late December. Last week, Peterson coped with the death of his grandmother.

So when the Spartans were confronted with their scariest minute of the tournament, they didn't panic.

With 16: 48 left -- only a minute after Peterson had picked up his third foul -- Cleaves got tangled up with Teddy Dupay while attempting a layup. Cleaves came up favoring his right ankle and went directly to the locker room.

Cleaves, who had accounted for 18 of his team's 53 points at that time, returned with 11: 51 remaining, along with Peterson. But the Spartans had fared well without their leaders, increasing a six-point gap to 58-50 when they rejoined the lineup.

Then Michigan State slammed away its first championship in two decades behind Peterson.

"I think it was a big turning point for us," center Andre Hutson said. "Mateen went down and we didn't get too down about it. We played without him before. We expected the worst and wanted to go out there and do what we could to finish the game. There wasn't any doubt we were going to win."

How was Cleaves feeling in the trainers' room?

"I dropped a few tears back there," said Cleaves, who will have his ankle X-rayed today. "I was definitely going to come back. I told the trainer, 'You are going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one.' "

Michigan State won the national championship in the coaches' box, as Izzo had his team polished and prepared.

The Spartans broke down Florida's vaunted press the way they drew it on the chalkboard, either going over the top of the Gators or letting Cleaves break it himself. It was a matter of not worrying about turnovers, just turning up the fast break.

Michigan State didn't turn the ball over for the first 12 minutes and gave only a handful of points away off mistakes against the press. Cornered to work out of its half-court offense, Florida appeared stagnant at times, frustrated that it couldn't stretch its legs.

"We were going to attack the press," Cleaves said. "If we got numbers, we were going to push it."

Izzo countered Florida's endless substitutions and took depth out of the equation. Michigan State was outscored only 26-16 from the bench, as it received 47 quality minutes from the likes of Jason Richardson and Mike Chappell.

"Every sub that came in played well," Izzo said. "We wouldn't have won if not for a team effort."

But in the end, the spotlight fell on "The Flintstones," the bedrock of the entire tournament.

"We had a sense of urgency at the end," Peterson said. "We wanted to win. After the game, Mateen was hopping around a bit. So I grabbed him, but I let him down easy."

All-tourney team

Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State

Morris Peterson, Michigan State

Udonis Haslem, Florida A. J. Granger, Michigan State

Charlie Bell, Michigan State

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