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 TOURNAMENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

Carried by Flint, Mich., seniors Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State carved itself 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.

The Spartans (32-7) achieved their first national championship since the Magic Johnson-led team won in 1979, but the former superstar remained a mere spectator since Michigan State required no 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.

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 not capitalizing on a superior inside game in the first half.

Peterson scored 21 points of 7-for-14 shooting to lead the Spartans. A. J. Granger had 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds. Cleaves, who spent four minutes of the second half in the locker room after spraining his right ankle, added 18 points and four assists.

"It was a lot of pain," said Cleaves, who walked into the postgame news conference on crutches. "I dropped a lot of tears in the training room. 'Oh, no, not now.' I just wanted to be able to play. I definitely was coming back. They were going to have to amputate my leg to take me out. I knew it was going to be sore and that I would have to suck it up."

As soon as the buzzer sounded, Peterson and Cleaves met at midcourt, where Peterson lifted Cleaves in celebration.

"You just have to leave it all on the floor," said Cleaves, who was voted MVP of the tournament. "Oh, my God, this is why I came back [for my senior season]. We're coming home, Flint."

The 13-point margin of victory was the biggest in the championship game since 1992, when Duke defeated Michigan, 71-51.

"It hasn't sunk in what we've accomplished," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "The three seniors [Cleaves, Peterson and Granger], I don't know what I can say to make you believe how special they are. They did a great job building this program."

Said Donovan: "The difference was their seniors. They made the plays, they made the shots when we got to within six or eight points. Every time we made a run at them, they answered. That's a sign of a good basketball team. We lost to a better team tonight."

Asked about the breakdown of the Gators' press, Florida forward Mike Miller said, "I think it was our fault. Coach told us they were going to [pass from] sideline [to the] middle. We didn't do a good job stepping in front of them. They had a good game plan. We had a good game plan; we just didn't follow it."

Michigan State, the only top seed to reach the Final Four this year, sealed the game with a 14-4 run that staked it to an 82-62 lead with five minutes left in the game.

Peterson drained a three-pointer from the left side with Miller in his face that put the Spartans ahead 76-60. Peterson then led a two-on-one break, dishing off to another Flint teammate, Charlie Bell, who made the layup while being fouled, then knocked down the free throw.

Peterson rounded out his 1 1/2-minute show with another three-pointer as the margin ballooned to 20 points.

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 without Cleaves, their floor leader who was sidelined in October with a stress fracture in his right foot. They also had to overcome an unexplainable loss to Wright State in late December.

During the tournament, shooting guard Bell had acupuncture on his left knee, and center Andre Hutson has received regular treatments for back problems. And last week, Peterson coped with the death of his grandmother and attended her funeral before arriving here Friday.

Neither team displayed tightness from the opening tip, as they combined to score on 13 of the game's first 17 possessions.

Michigan State found its niche against Florida's vaunted press from the start, either going over the top of the Gators or letting Cleaves break it himself. The Spartans' game plan was clear: attack in every situation.

When Bell saw Florida's half-court trap, he hit a cutting Peterson for a leaner to put Michigan State up 17-11 just 5: 40 into the game. The Spartans created high-percentage shots with their aggressiveness, connecting on seven of their first 11 shots.

Florida appeared stagnant at times, cornered to work out of its half-court sets. It couldn't stretch its legs to run since Michigan State didn't commit a turnover in the opening 12 minutes and constantly retreated on defense to cut down on fast-break chances.

After the Gators clipped the margin to 19-17, the Spartans surged back again, reeling off 14 of the next 17 points. Cleaves drilled two three-pointers from the top of the key in the spurt, which was capped by Granger's floater along the baseline. That raised Michigan State's advantage to 33-20 with 6: 46 left in the first half, putting Florida in its biggest hole of the tournament and quieting the Gators' fan section known as the "Rowdy Reptiles."

The Gators had their most success by feeding their frontcourt, but they never seemed to look inside consistently. Florida forward Donnell Harvey, who has a 91-inch wing span, scored on a hook shot and hit one of two free-throw attempts late in the first half, closing the gap to 37-30.

Bell and Cleaves launched three-pointers in the last 2 1/2 minutes to boost the Spartans' lead to 43-32, their third double-digit halftime advantage in the tournament.

Michigan State's road to the title

Midwest Regional Rd. Opponent Result 1st Valparaiso W, 65-38 2nd Utah W, 73-61

SF Syracuse W, 75-58

F Iowa State W, 75-64

Final Four

SF Wisconsin W, 53-41

F Florida W, 89-76

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