Sunday, March 28, 1999

Close doesn't satisfy Cleaves

The Associated Press

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Surrender? Mateen Cleaves was defiant to the end.

        Nobody gave Michigan State much of a chance against top-ranked Duke. Still, the Spartans made the powerful Blue Devils sweat before bowing 68-62 in an NCAA Tournament Final Four semifinal Saturday night.

        “We didn't come here just to give Duke a good game,” said Cleaves, the charismatic leader who had carried the Spartans on his shoulders so many times. “We're not happy just losing by six points.

        “We got so close. We could see it. But we couldn't get over that hump. I always felt we were just one or two plays away.”

        Maybe. But this time, the Spartans — who lived on the edge all season — fell behind once too often. Not even Cleaves could bail them out against a team as deep and balanced and powerful as Duke.

        “When we cut it to three, all their All-Americans kind of stepped up,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “That's why they're the No.1 team in the nation.”

        The Blue Devils (37-1) will meet Connecticut for the NCAA title Monday night.

        Down the stretch, Cleaves turned the ball over twice and missed four of five shots — three from three-point range. He finished with 12 points and, except for a tip-in with 17.6 seconds remaining, was silent over the final 141/2 minutes of the game.

        Was the pressure too much? Was he trying too hard?

        “No, I didn't feel any pressure,” Cleaves said. “You know, I've been doing it all year. I've been taking the shots. I'm going to continue taking those shots.

        “It's kind of funny, if I don't make them, people say I forced them. When I make them, people make me out to be a hero. So I'm going to keep taking those shots, because that's what I do. I take the shot every time down the stretch. That's my job.”

        As Michigan State (33-5) ran off 22 straight victories, Cleaves had always been able to get the Spartans out of jams. But none of the Spartans was able to handle Duke forward Elton Brand, the college player of the year.

        Brand, a 6-foot-8, 260-pounder, backed in, dove and soared on the way to 18 points and 15 rebounds against the gritty but overmatched Spartans, who also lost to Duke in the Great Eight in December.

        “Michigan State is the No. 2 team in the country,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They are not a bump in the road. That's a great basketball team. Both teams played their hearts out at the defensive end.”

        The Spartans, making their first Final Four appearance since Magic Johnson's NCAA title team in 1979, had always been able to overcome long spells of ugly play. But not this time, not against Duke.

        With Johnson watching from the stands, the Spartans made just 9-of-31 shots and trailed 32-20 at halftime. They went scoreless of the final 5:13 of the half and their leading scorer was Andre Hutson with five points.

        “This was a possession-for-possession game,” Krzyzewski said. “They missed some open threes, but this was a very well-earned game by our team.”