Facebook Twitter

Spartan effort for MSU

SHARE Spartan effort for MSU

Mich. St. 73, Kentucky 66

ST. LOUIS -- Michigan State finally acted like a No. 1 seed.Facing an early 13-point deficit against defending champion Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, the Spartans shrugged instead of panicked and earned their first trip to the Final Four in 21 years with a 73-66 victory Sunday.

The link to Michigan State's last glory days, 1979 NCAA championship hero Magic Johnson, was among the Regional-record crowd of 42,519 as the Spartans (33-4) ran their victory streak to 22 in a row.

But this group is new to the spotlight, so no one was bragging about denying Kentucky (28-9) its fourth straight appearance in the Final Four.

"I don't think we have the swagger yet, not like Kentucky," coach Tom Izzo said. "Maybe we can have a swagger in the showers, but I hope by the time we're out, reality sets in. This is a start."

Well, maybe not just a start.

"It's probably as good a day as we've had at Michigan State in a long, long time," Izzo said.

Michigan State made three of its first 15 shots to fall into 17-4 and 19-6 deficits and at one point was getting outrebounded 15-7. It was enough for point guard Mateen Cleaves, involved in a brutal head-on-head collision with Oklahoma's Eduardo Najera on Friday night, to reach for the aspirin.

"When they were up 17-4, they (the headaches) started coming back a little bit," Cleaves joked.

The spunky Spartans turned it into a one-point game at the half by going to a little-used weapon, the 3-pointer. Michigan State, which averages four 3-pointers a game, was 5-for-11 in the half. The Spartans shot 49 percent for the game and flexed their muscles underneath after the break, ending with a 33-29 rebounding advantage.

"I don't really know how we got back in, nor do I care," said sixth man Morris Peterson, who had 19 points and hit six key free throws in the final 28.9 seconds. "I'm just happy we did."

Peterson, perhaps the best sixth man in the nation, also had 10 rebounds. He realized the enormity of the situation each time he stepped to the line in the closing seconds, and hit nothing but net on all six free throws.

"I wasn't nervous," Peterson said. "A lot of things started going through my mind, and I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation. I just wanted to take advantage of it."

Andre Hutson and A.J. Granger each had 14 points and Cleaves had 10 points and 11 assists. Granger was instrumental in the first-half comeback, going 3-for-3 from 3-point range.

It was a flat final chapter for Kentucky seniors Scott Padgett and Heshimu Evans, notorious by their absence of production. Padgett had 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting and Evans, after scoring 12 points in the first 9:42, battled foul trouble and went without a point the rest of the way.

"He was off to a great start," Smith said. "I think that hurt us."

Seven of Padgett's points came in the final 1:42 and his second 3-pointer in that stretch, with 18.8 seconds to go, cut the gap to 69-66. But in the final six minutes he also missed the front end of the bonus and the second of two free throws in another situation.

Padgett had a career-high 29 points in the second round against Kansas, and scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half on Friday night against Miami.

"Every time I came off a screen, they switched everything," Padgett said. "When I tried to get to the paint, they switched to a big guy and fronted me. I also missed two or three open shots."

There were a lot of misses for Kentucky after a 7-for-10 start. The Wildcats were 9-for-24 in the second half and shot 45 percent overall.

"We got off to a very good start and for once we were the team that got a little too excited," Padgett said.

As for the winners, there were no worries about the next opponent: top-ranked Duke on Saturday at St. Petersburg, Fla. The Blue Devils beat Michigan State 73-67 on Dec. 2, holding the Spartans to 38.7 percent shooting.

Connecticut plays Ohio State in the other national semifinal.

"I don't even care about the next game right now," Izzo said. "There are 37 games there's been pressure on this team and I'm going to enjoy this day. I love Duke, they're a great team, and I'll deal with them tomorrow."