FOUR-WARD!SPARTANS KO ‘CATS, REACH FINAL FOUR FOR FIRST TIME SINCE ’79

ST. LOUIS — He threw it like a man who believed things can fly — balls, dreams, even underdog teams. Mateen Cleaves, a one-time quarterback, cranked his arm and heaved the ball almost the length of the floor. It soared over the heads of all those celebrated Kentucky players, who raced desperately to reach it before Cleaves’ teammate, Andre Hutson.

Sorry, Cats. The ball fell like destiny into Hutson’s hands, he bounced it once, and rose for a rolling lay-in. The Kentucky players broke stride and gasped, like second-place finishers in a sprint. The Wildcats stared in disbelief. Something was wrong with their picture, with all the hoop experts’ pictures, and they seemed to go scrambling for the color adjustment knobs.

Forget it, guys. That’s the way it’s supposed to look: green, not blue.

Cats, scratched.

Guess who just stormed the castle?

Yes, that was Michigan State taking the lead on Hutson’s basket with 7:30 left and never relinquishing it. Yes, that was coach Tom Izzo and senior Antonio Smith, his first recruit, climbing that ladder, cutting down the last shred of net, together.

Yes, that was the other college basketball team from Michigan, America. Call them ugly, call them anonymous, call them blue-collar, muddy, rough, tough or inglorious. Just don’t call them late for the Final Four. Because the Spartans, on the 20th anniversary of their only championship season, are on their way to living the dream all over again.

“I can’t even describe this feeling!” said Smith, the cocaptain, wearing a Final Four cap and an unstoppable grin after his team upset the Wildcats, 73-66, to advance to its first Final Four in two decades. “When I came here, we were a .500 program. And to be here now like this, cutting down the nets, it’s what we’ve all dreamed about.”

What a scene! Played before the largest crowd in the history of regional finals, more than 42,000 people, this game was a monument to believing in yourself, your program and your coach. Could there have been two more different looking teams than the MSU that started this game and the MSU that finished it? The opening minutes were nervous vaudeville. The closing minutes, the Spartans could have been posing for a statue of confidence.

For beauty’s sake, let’s focus on the closing part. It was Morris Peterson at the free-throw line — with his mother in the stands tapping her heart with each shot — hitting not one, not two, but six straight free throws in the final 30 seconds to hold Kentucky at bay. It was Cleaves, who never listens to negative sounds, including the clanging of his own shots, making that great pass at crunch time, and an ensuing three-pointer, and an ensuing bounce pass assist to Peterson — six straight points, due to his skill. It was A.J. Granger, firing three-pointers with the patience of a watchmaker, pulling his teammates out of the fire. It was the Spartans’ rebounders, grabbing twice as many boards in the second half as Kentucky.

And it was Izzo, who waited nine years under Jud Heathcote to take over this program, keeping his guys straight, stroking their confidence, and finally screaming at the top of his lungs when he made the final snip of the net.

“I know we have a great team to play next,” he hollered, “but I’m going to enjoy this day. I’m going to enjoy this day!”

Cats, scratched.

State of Grace.

A team with heart

Make no mistake, folks. With this victory, the MSU program didn’t just take a leap, it pulled an Evel Knievel, flying over the canyon and landing on the soft sand of national recognition, international respect, and a toe-to-toe showdown with Duke, the No. 1 team in the nation, on the next to the last day of college basketball this season.

Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.

Especially considering how it began. Duke may be the celebrated Goliath of this tournament, but in many ways, by Sunday, Kentucky was the hardest team to play. The Wildcats not only carried a storied history and a solid roster, they had a mission. They were, after all, the defending champions. They have been to the last three title games. And coming in, they felt that Duke was getting all the national attention.

So here they came, strutting their legacy, with a Trans World Dome crowd that was swathed in blue and seemed to number at least 4-to-1 in their favor. I didn’t know St. Louis was in Kentucky, but it was on Sunday. Kentucky and its crown. Kentucky and its history. Kentucky and its seven national titles. By game time, the Spartans seemed to be facing Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner and Tubby Smith but also Jamal Mashburn, Rex Chapman, Dan Issel, Goose Givens, Cliff Hagan and Adolph Rupp. Every ghost who ever donned a Kentucky blue uniform was out there on the floor.

Maybe that’s why, after the opening seven minutes, it looked as if the Spartans would need a search party by halftime. Kentucky came out hot and bold, hitting three-pointers like a kid hits Nerf ball lay-ups. Senior forward Heshimu Evans was the most stellar, rising for jumpers, slamming in rebounds, making crisp passes on fast breaks. He scored nine points in less than five minutes, and it looked as if he might beat the Spartans by himself.

But only because MSU was playing like a calf in a butcher shop. Shots clanged, passes were dropped.

Next thing you knew, Kentucky led, 17-4.

But these Spartans are defined by their resilience, like an old boot that you can’t believe is still water-tight. Izzo kept shuffling in players until he found a combination that worked. Granger hit two long three-point shots, which seemed to give his teammates oxygen. A steal here, a strong rebound there, more three-pointers, some strong play from Peterson and a typical, last second, three-point miracle from Cleaves — his second basket of the half — sent MSU into the locker room trailing only by a point, 36-35.

“Were we happy to be down by one?” Charlie Bell said. “No way. We were mad that we had played that badly.”

The second half was a different story. The Spartans made a vow to rebound and defend. They did. They kept it close. And finally, finally — after seeming to hit every inch of the rim — the Spartans started hitting net. They made lay-ups. They made three-pointers. They would shoot 52 percent in the second half, which for this team, in this tournament, is like winning the lottery.

And no shot was bigger than Cleaves’ football pass to Hutson’s lay-up. It seemed to outrun the Wildcats, outdazzle them and ultimately outdo them. They would never catch the Spartans again.

“I couldn’t believe Mateen threw it,” Hutson said.

“Well,” Cleaves explained, “even in all my football days, Andre’s the biggest receiver I ever had to throw to . . .”

State of Grace.

Off to Florida

Now, it’s true, Duke looms on Saturday. And since Duke’s only loss of the season — and that seems like 100 years ago — nobody has stayed with the Blue Devils yet.

But nobody expected the Spartans to beat Kentucky, either. So enjoy this moment. This is a huge day for Spartans fans everywhere. It was a snapshot that said green, without apology. A snapshot of Magic Johnson, in the stands, and Jud Heathcote, in the stands, and George Perles and Nick Saban, in the stands. It was the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and cousins cheering in those stands, all by themselves, even after the place had cleared out of all those Kentucky fans.

“GO …GREEN!” they kept chanting. “GO …GREEN!”

They’re going. All the way to St. Petersburg, Fla. This is what they dreamed about. This is what they’ve done. It’s not a closed book. But it’s already got some great chapters.

“Can you describe how you feel?” Izzo was asked, for about the 100th time, as the building emptied and the team headed for the bus.

“You know, I can’t begin to tell you how I feel except that, other than my daughter being born, this is the biggest moment of my life.”

And then, as if by way of explanation, he said this:

“I’m a Michigan State guy.”

It’s a pretty good thing to be this morning, isn’t it?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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