WINNING UGLYROUGH AND TUMBLE WAS ENOUGH THIS TIME FOR SPARTANS

ST. LOUIS — Basketball is not supposed to be about collisions. That’s football. It is easy to forget, as you watch them glide and soar to the basket, that these are still big men out there, fast-moving bodies with no protection. Not a pad. Not a glove. Not a helmet.

Friday night, in a game that was already ugly, the physical side of basketball breathed some ugly fire. Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves, trying to stay with his man, spun blindly and ran forehead-first into the chin of Oklahoma star Eduardo Najera, ramming him hard, knocking him flat. Cleaves, too, jerked backward from the impact. He landed flat on his back and was suddenly still. It looked as if both players had been shot. The crowd sucked in its breath and seemed to ask, “Basketball? This happens in basketball?”

It happens. The two players lay there, not moving, for several minutes. Najera was unconscious, bleeding from the mouth and chin. Cleaves was rolling his eyes, trying to find his way back to this planet. Even wearing helmets, their crash would have left them dizzy. Few observers could recall an impact as direct and brutal in basketball. The cranium into the jawbone. Full speed. You could almost hear the thunk up in the stands.

“I’ve had some hard collisions in my life,” Cleaves said later, “but that ranks right up there. It felt like I ran into a wall.”

The Trans World Dome was quiet. Eventually, Cleaves sat up. He was helped to the bench, where he blinked and rolled his neck like a man stepping out of a car wreck. Coaches asked him his mother’s name, they asked him to count backward. Najera remained motionless longer. Coaches and trainers eventually brought him to, and he was bandaged, lifted and taken to the bench. He joined his team for a show of unity, raising his arm into their arms, wincing all the way. He then was led to the tunnel, turning his back on the action, walking away from the biggest game of his college career.

“Seeing him there bleeding from the mouth,” Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said, “you realize how much you care about your kids and not just the game. For me, it wasn’t like, ‘Hurry up, kid, get up, we need you to win this thing.’ I just wanted to make sure he was OK.”

It was no way to end a basketball season. And, for the Spartans, in the end, it wasn’t. They captured this basketball game, they advanced to the Elite Eight, they won the night, 54-46, but for a brief moment, the Sooners got the memorable moment. Just a few minutes after leaving the floor, with his team clearly stunned and leaderless, Najera somehow came walking back out. The crowd erupted.

And he checked himself back into the game, bandages and all.

It might not have been the smartest thing for his health. It might lead to some questions about the medical staff. But, strictly from a sports perspective, it was a wonderful snapshot, a picture of courage, an inspiration for athletes everywhere. When people look back on this game, they will remember the toughness that Eduardo Najera showed. It was something else.

And now, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

The only thing uglier than the collision was the basketball.

Plenty of bricks

Ladies and gentlemen, this was bad. It was two teams shooting a combined 36 percent. It was two teams making bad decisions, missing easy jumpers. For a while, all they seemed to do was run down the floor, throw a shot off the backboard, then head the other way. This was a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA tournament? It looked more like the last minutes on an outdoor court when the sun is gone and nobody can see the rim.

Ugly? Try Oklahoma’s supposedly hot three-point shooter, Eric Martin, hitting one basket all night. Ugly? Try only five Oklahoma assists in 40 minutes. Ugly? Try Cleaves shooting 3-for-14, Antonio Smith going pointless and the Spartans almost being outrebounded.

They said Oklahoma was a 13th seed that wasn’t playing like a 13th seed. That was true. The Sooners played like a 50th seed. You want to know how bad it was? There was a play in which Sooners guard Michael Johnson grabbed the ball as he was falling out of bounds. He called time-out as he landed, lost his footing, slipped over a chair and crashed into the Michigan State water bucket, sending cups flying and soaking himself.

That was Oklahoma’s most acrobatic play all night.

“We’re not the prettiest team in America,” Tom Izzo said after the game was over and MSU had survived, “but we’ve been prettier than we were tonight.”

Miss Piggy could have said the same.

Final Four or bust

But in the end, all that matters is advancing. And the Spartans did, to a showdown Sunday against Kentucky. The Spartans have reached the plateau they have been waiting to scale. All year long, it was Final Four or bust. A victory Sunday, and bust goes bye-bye.

Still, to win, the Spartans will have to play better than they did Friday night. You can’t count on an opponent being that discombobulated. You also can’t count on its star player disappearing for key minutes with a sliced chin and a concussion.

“When he came back in, I tapped him on the back, just making sure he was all right, you know?” Cleaves said of Najera. “But I couldn’t be too nice to him. We still had some game to play.”

They still do today. Fortunately. Friday was about surviving a crash. But it was also about luck. At another angle, a different impact, it’s Cleaves leaving the game, and his team losing its way.

For an ugly performance, Friday offered several lessons. One is that, for all the hype, these kids are still human. And being human means certain frailties.

The other lesson is that you can only win ugly for so long. The Spartans and their fans would be wise to consider Friday the last game in which a sub-par performance will still lead to victory. There are only eight teams left in the big dance. It’s real now. As real as a smack in the head.

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

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