GREEN GRITSPARTANS FOIL SYRACUSE; IOWA ST. NEXTWHEN MSU FEARED WORST, IT FOUGHT THE HARDEST

Time after time, their best hope went into the belly of the beast. Time after time, he came away bloody. Here was Mateen Cleaves, the heart of the Spartans, driving into the Syracuse defense, twisting, leaping, rolling up a shot and — swat! Rejected. Another drive, a fast break this time, surely now he’s going to scor– swat! Blocked again, into the hands of a Syracuse player, into the hands of another Syracuse player, into the hands of another Syracuse player who jammed it home for a big lead.

Michigan State was a balloon losing air. Cleaves missed every shot he tried, inside and outside, his checks were being cashed by the Orangemen, and when the halftime horn sounded, he walked off the court with nothing, no points, no rebounds, no lead. And his teammates, so used to looking to him for leadership, had little more to show for themselves. Morris Peterson had one basket in the first 10 seconds and was silent the rest of the half. A.J. Granger seemed to be dancing on hot coals, awkward in his shot, tentative with his rebounds. The bench had a total of two free throws.

Let’s face it: The Spartans were getting smoked on a court so close to home, it was painted green. If ever there was a time to panic, a time to figure this whole MSU hysteria was more dream than reality, it was now, this halftime, as the Spartans trailed red-hot Syracuse — a team that started the season with 19 straight victories — by a fat 10 points, right?

Not so fast. Remember this: The young do not judge time well. Freshmen think there is an endless supply of it, sophomores worry prematurely about it running out. But seniors? This is where they are invaluable. A senior has weathered the storms. A senior knows a midterm is not a final, one beer is not the same as six beers — and a basketball game is 40 minutes, not 20.

“If this was gonna be our last 20 minutes,” Peterson, the senior, would later say, “we were gonna make sure it was a game.”

“At halftime, I yelled the worst things I’ve said to my teammates all year,” Cleaves, the senior, would add. “But we were not gonna take off these jerseys without a fight.”

Hmm. Second half, anyone?

A series of three-pointers

Or should I say, second act? By the time this game was over, you couldn’t connect the second half to the first if you had 100 feet of cable. If the first half Thursday night was the Spartans’ flailing in the deep end of a pool, the second half was MSU on the roof with a garden hose, laughing, untouchable, raining down three-pointers on Syracuse in a soaking display of tenacity.

First Granger — another senior — swished a three-pointer to cut the lead. Then Cleaves nailed a three-pointer to whittle it some more. Peterson answered with a three-pointer. Cleaves echoed with another. Peterson hit another. I am not just stringing sentences here. That is how it went. The Spartans hit six three-pointers in nine consecutive attempts in six minutes. And in the next six minutes, they had two more treys and three lay-ups. In the final six minutes, Charlie Bell had nine points, three rebounds, a steal and an assist
— all by himself.

Working? Either the 20-footers were going in, or the two-footers were going in. The Spartans would shoot 68 percent for the second half, which means two out of every three shots they took went through. And if that sounds less like a game than a drill, well, it sort of looked like it.

“Was it fear that brought out that performance?” someone asked Cleaves, after the Spartans more than doubled the Orangemen in the second half, outscoring them, 51-24, to finish with an eye-rubbing, 75-58 victory and a berth in the Elite Eight of this crazy NCAA basketball tournament.

“It wasn’t fear,” Cleaves said, “it was a sense of urgency. You know, you’re thinking it could be your last game….

“I mean I don’t wanna say it was fear….”

He shrugged.

“Well. OK. It was fear.”

Hey. Nothing the matter with that. Fear is fine. Fear is a great motivator. What makes men run away from grizzly bears faster than they ever ran before? Fear, right? But the difference is, while some teams try to beat the fear by swallowing it and choking on it, the Spartans see fear, they jump back, then treat it like a bug.

Down comes sneaker.

Squash.

A team with plenty of weapons

Listen, folks, to win a game like this by 17 points is almost unthinkable. After all, this was a fine Syracuse team, not one that was lucky to be ahead at halftime. The Orangemen boast one of the best big men in the college game, Etan Thomas, and a gritty point guard, Jason Hart, who matched Cleaves in skill, tenacity and leadership. Syracuse was making transition baskets in the first half, hitting outside shots, ignoring the pro-Spartans crowd at the Palace and ripping through the supposedly impenetrable MSU defense.

But while Syracuse had a lot of individual talent, the Orangemen didn’t match MSU’s team weapon. There is something about this Spartans ensemble that allows it to turn into a single force, a wall of defense, five concurrent bullets on offense. And when the Spartans are threatened, they respond. They did it in the rare moments Valparaiso raised its head in the tournament opener. They did it after falling behind to Utah in Round 2. They have done it again in Round 3.

Not that you want to make a habit out of that.

“We need to get better starts in our next games,” Cleaves said, smiling. “I’m tired of giving these halftime speeches.”

You think he’s tired? To his left sat his coach, Tom Izzo, who looked as if he’d melted off about 10 pounds. By the second half, Izzo had removed his sports jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. He was a foreman ready to start the printing presses.

But when it was over, he met two of his senior stars at center court, Peterson
(21 points) and Cleaves (10 points, seven assists), and he laughed with them and hugged them and they seemed to be sharing a secret confidence. They had stared the devil in the face, and they were still here.

“HEY, I LIKE A CHALLENGE!” Izzo jokingly yelled to a friend.

More to the point, his players can handle one. That’s enough to make any coach smile. And enough to give any college team an edge on a championship. Especially players who know that 20 minutes is not 40 minutes, one game is not six games, and the final buzzer sounds different than all the buzzers that come before it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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