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BIG ST. LOUIS BLUES

Date story published: Monday, March 22, 1999

ST. LOUIS - Against a lesser opponent, Kentucky would have won its way to a fourth straight Final Four yesterday.

But Michigan State was good enough to overcome obstacles that seemingly stacked higher than the famous Gateway Arch that towers over this city.

UK's national championship pedigree, its aura of invincibility in March this decade and its commanding dominance early in the game could not beat the Spartans.

Instead, Michigan State validated its status as the top seed in the Midwest Region by taking Kentucky's best shot and then making key play after key play down the stretch en route to a 73-66 victory.

The way Michigan State won its way to the school's first Final Four in 20 years served as a bit of consolation for a Kentucky team that nearly duplicated the last-minute comeback that eliminated Kansas the previous Sunday.

"We had a good season," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "We can hold our heads up because we got beat by a very good team."

Michigan State, which won its 22nd straight game, fell behind by 13 points barely seven minutes into the game. With Heshimu Evans scoring nine of the points, UK roared to a 17-4 lead at the 12:56 mark.

At that juncture, the game unfolded as Kentucky had hoped.

"They were a little bit nervous advancing this far," Smith said of State in its first regional final since 1979, or Magic Johnson's sophomore season. "Hopefully, we were going to capitalize on that."

As Michigan State missed 13 of its first 15 shots, Coach Tom Izzo sensed Kentucky going for the jugular.

"A team like that, with the aura of a program like Kentucky, you know, it's easy to say don't play the jersey," he said. "Then you come out and they've bought up every one of Miami's and Oklahoma's tickets. It's tough. If we'd gotten down a couple more baskets, we might have been in trouble."

Michigan State got back in the game thanks to A.J. Granger's long-range shooting. Granger hit back-to-back threes. That started a span in which State made seven of eight shots to reduce Kentucky's lead to 28-25.

There would be no early knockout.

Kentucky, its season ended with a 28-9 record, maintained a lead because of its freshmen. Tayshaun Prince, whose 12 points marked his best scoring game since Maryland Dec. 12, and Jules Camara accounted for UK's final 10 points of the half.

But a buzzer-beating three-pointer by State's All-America point guard, Mateen Cleaves, reduced UK's halftime lead to 36-35. The NBA-length bomb from beyond the top of the key staggered the Cats.

"The momentum kind of shifted right before half," Smith said. "Mateen hit that three and they came out energized the rest of the half."

Cleaves, who had made only two of 13 three-point attempts in the tournament to that point, saw that shot as significant.

"Throughout the whole tournament, I'd been trying to guide my shot instead of just shooting," he said. "Iwas so far back, I just shot it. It could have been a little luck. I just thank God it went in. It was a big emotional lift for us going into halftime."

The Spartans, who saw rebounding and defense as their calling cards, did some soul-searching at intermission. Kentucky had won the boards 19-11 and shot 51.7 percent in the first half.

"We made up our minds we were going to dominate the boards," Izzo said.

State, which had the kind of quick athletic front line that had troubled Kentucky throughout the season, won the second-half rebounding battle 22-10. The Spartans also limited UK to 37.5-percent shooting in the second half.

Because UK got no scoring from its seniors from the 8:49 mark of the first half until Wayne Turner hit a driving layup with 3:22 left, it seemed inevitable Michigan State would take control.

It happened in the final eight minutes.

Scott Padgett, UK's sole representative on the all-region team, missed a three-pointer with about 7:35 to go. State took the miss and scored a fast-break layup to go ahead for good 55-54 with 7:29 left.

After Padgett missed the front end of a one-and-one, Cleaves buried a three-pointer to put the Spartans ahead 58-54 with 5:42 left.

"A lot of people can make shots when you're up 20 or up 10 or down 10 or 20," Padgett said. "It's somebody special who can make them when yo u need them."

Kentucky missed two golden opportunities to quickly reduce the deficit. Turner missed a driving layup. "If I had to do it over, I'd use the backboard," he said.

Freshman Desmond Allison rebounded Turner's miss, but his two-hand putback bounced off the front of the rim.

"That's one you've got to dunk back in," Smith said softly. "You can't try to baby it back."

Showing its championship mettle, Kentucky never gave in despite trailing by seven with 42 seconds left.

Padgett, who hadn't scored a basket since the 10:54 mark of the first half, rose to the occasion with back-to-back three-point baskets. The second reduced State's lead to 69-66 with 18.8 seconds left.

When a reporter noted that he thought of another Kansas comeback in the offing, Padgett said, "So did I. But Peterson made some big free throws."

Morris Peterson, State's sixth-man and leading scorer, hit six straight free throws in the final 28.9 seconds to cap a game-high 19-point performance and seal the victory.

"Every time we'd make a play, they'd come down and hit a big shot or make a big play," Padgett said. "You have to take your hat off to them."

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