Monday, March 22, 1999

Cleaves' pain felt by UK

Guard's shooting, leadership rallies Spartans to win

The Associated Press

        ST. LOUIS — Only once during Michigan State's Midwest Regional victory over Kentucky did Mateen Cleaves feel the pain of his violent, head-jarring collision 48 hours earlier with Oklahoma's Eduardo Najera.

        “When we got down 17-4, my head started hurting,” said the point guard who seems to energize the Spartans with his personality as well as his play.

        “My head feels fine. But when we were losing big like that, it started to hurt.”

        Cleaves, a powerfully built 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior, had 10 points and 11 assists in the Spartans 73-66 victory over the defending champion Wildcats. But the enthusiasm and momentum he seemed to transfer to the Spartans were probably equally important.

        “Cleaves made some big plays for them, kept getting the ball to the right people,” said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.

        Cleaves saved his biggest bucket for the end of the first half. Capping the remarkable comeback from a 17-4 deficit, he hit a long three-pointer at the buzzer that cut Kentucky's lead to 1 and gave the Spartans all the confidence they needed for the second half.

        “That was a big, big lift for them, that shot by Mateen,” said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.

        Until then, Cleaves had been in a shooting slump going back to the semifinal victory over Oklahoma.

        “I think I'd been trying to guide my shot,” he said. “But I just shot it and let it go. It was a good emotional lift for the guys and for me. That felt great.”

        Coach Tom Izzo cannot imagine this team without Cleaves, the most charismatic and probably the most talented point guard the Spartans have had since Magic Johnson guided them to their last appearance in the Final Four 20 seasons ago.

        “It's funny,” Izzo said. “We've got a melting pot on our team, guys from big cities, guys from rural areas. But they all gravitate to him.

        “I told him one day, "You know, you're the Pied Piper. Don't ever walk off a cliff because the guys will follow you.' It's amazing.”

        Izzo has noticed that if something's wrong with Cleaves, something's wrong with the Spartans.

        “He's got a personality, something about him that people will follow,” he said. “Every one of them. If he's up, they're up. If he's down, they're down.”

        During the season when Cleaves went into a slump, the entire team was affected.

        “Jason Klein told me, "I need to get Mateen back,'” Izzo said. “That tells you what he means to this team.”


Kentucky Stories
It's simple: Spartans were better team Tim Sullivan column
Turner's presents won't include a ring
- Cleaves' pain felt by UK