Saturday, March 24, 2001

Michigan State 77, Gonzaga 62

Defending champs play like it

AP Sports Writer

        ATLANTA — Michigan State no longer has Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. Even so, the Spartans still have the look of a champion.

        Charlie Bell scored 21 points and led a stellar defensive effort by the defending national champions, who moved within one victory of getting back to the Final Four while ending another memorable NCAA tournament run by tiny Gonzaga.

        Top-seeded Michigan State overpowered the Bulldogs 77-62 on Friday night in the South Regional semifinals. The Spartans advanced to meet No. 11 seed Temple, an 84-72 winner over Penn State.

        The winner of Sunday's game moves on to play in Minneapolis.

        “It's been a long year and we're just happy to be playing another game,” Bell said. “A lot of people didn't think we could get this far, but we came into this season thinking we could win another national championship.”

        Michigan State (27-4) was simply too big, too quick and too deep for No. 12 seed Gonzaga (26-7), which led 44-41 with just under 16 minutes remaining.

        When the Spartans turned up the defensive pressure, Gonzaga had trouble even finding the rim. The Bulldogs went 8:02 without a field goal, throwing up at least three airballs during that span and missing badly several other times.

        Michigan State, which kept on winning despite losing Cleaves and Peterson from its title team, got another balanced effort.

        Andre Hutson had 19 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-3 Bell also sneaked inside the bigger players to grab 10 rebounds. Jason Richardson had 12 points and seven rebounds. Zach Randolph added 10 points.

        “Until somebody knocks them off, they're the champions,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We made run after run at them. But they kept coming at us, coming at us, coming at us.”

        Hutson epitomized the blue-collar Spartans. He played 29 minutes despite a painful leg cramp in the second half.

        “Andre's a winner,” teammate Aloysius Anagoyne said. “He had a bad cramp and he played through it like a winner. He tells us what he wants from us and we do it.”

        Gonzaga's roster doesn't run as deep, and Michigan State knew how to take advantage of a tiring team. The Spartans put together a 15-3 run for a 57-46 lead with nine minutes to go.

        The Bulldogs never got closer than six the rest of the way.

        “When you see a team start shooting air balls, that's a sign that they're tired,” Michigan State's David Thomas said. “We knew if we could pick it up there, we could get ahead.”

        Michigan State, which came in as the nation's dominant rebounding team, flexed its muscle for a commanding 49-29 advantage on the boards — including 18 at the offensive end. The Spartans also had eight blocks and continually harassed the Bulldogs into ill-timed shots.

        “Eventually, we couldn't withstand their toughness at the defensive end,” Few said. “They punished us on the offensive boards. I don't know if that was demoralizing, but they had a lot of easy putbacks.”

        Bell also handled much of the defensive work on Gonzaga star Dan Dickau, who led his team with 19 points but was only 6-of-17 from the field.

        “He's probably the best defender I've faced,” Dickau said. “He always seems to be in position. He's a strong defender, too. There were a couple of times I had a shoulder down and thought I was going to get into the lane. But he never gives up.”

        Gonzaga came in as the little team that could, reaching the round of 16 for the third straight season even though the Bulldogs are continually kept down by the NCAA selection committee.

        “I told our guys to hold their heads high,” Few said. “We played like a champion. Maybe this will end all that silly talk about us being a mid-major team.”

        Gonzaga kept it close against the Spartans throughout the first half, grabbing its first lead, 25-24, on Mark Spink's 19-foot jumper with six minutes left in the half.

        Michigan State scored the final five points of the period for a 37-32 lead at the break, but Gonzaga came out strong.

        Dickau, who was held to 1-of-5 shooting in the first half, popped in two quick 3-pointers to push the Zags back to the lead. They had the Georgia Dome crowd roaring with crisp passing, leading to a layup for Spink and a dunk by Zach Gourde.

        Michigan State responded by getting more active in the passing lanes, forcing Gonzaga to go back outside. The Bulldogs couldn't respond, shooting only 22-of-58 (38 percent) from the field.

        “We're not a team that's used to struggling for points,” said Casey Calvary, held to 17 points on a 6-of-15 performance that included several airballs. “We didn't execute as well as we usually do. We had trouble when they made their run.”

        When it was over, Gonzaga had one more classy gesture before leaving the court, trotting over as a team and clapping toward their section of fans.

        “This was the best time of my life,” said Calvery, a senior. “Just thinking about it makes me choke up.”

        Michigan State simply moved on, its mission still unfulfilled as it seeks a third straight trip to the Final Four.

        “All year long,” Hutson said, “we've been trying to prove we're the national champions.”

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