On the strength of a 46-22 rebounding edge, the Spartans whipped overmatched Mount St. Mary's 76-53 Friday night in the first round of the Midwest Regional despite getting just eight points from All-American point guard Mateen Cleaves.
The Spartans, 26-point favorites, lost the opening tip and trailed 11-7 five minutes in. But the Mountaineers' hopes of becoming the first No. 16 seed to win an NCAA men's game quickly faded.
Mount St. Mary's (15-15), a school of 1,309 students in central Maryland or 32 times smaller than Michigan State stayed with the Spartans until Cleaves scored his first points with 7:25 left in the first half.
"They came out and made some big shots," Cleaves said. "We didn't take them lightly, they just played well early. We knew if we wanted to pull away from them, we had to step up our defense."
Cleaves stripped Melvin Whitaker of the ball near his own basket, drove the floor and hung in the air on his layup just long enough to draw a foul from Eric Bethel. The three-point play put Michigan State ahead 22-16.
The Mountaineers, who got coach Jim Phelan his 800th victory last week, never were closer than that. But they did give the Spartans a good workout.
Michigan State (30-4), which hasn't lost since Jan. 6 when the Spartans were beaten 66-51 at Wisconsin, won its 19th straight game.
But Spartans coach Tom Izzo was concerned about a sluggish start and sloppy finish.
"We weren't sharp early, but there was a little nervousness," he said. "It's a little nervousness to come in as a No. 1 seed. I've been saying all year there are new things we need to learn how to handle and deal with. I'm sure being a No. 1 seed was one."
Phelan's strategy was to double-team Cleaves in the backcourt, and while it was effective, the Spartans just had too many other ways to win.
"When you stand the test of time, you're kind of special," Izzo said of Phelan's tactics. "I admired what he tried to do."
"They did a great job of taking me away," agreed Cleaves. "That was my first time going against double teams in the backcourt. With the experience their coach has, I knew they were going to come up with a good game plan."
But how can you plan for just five offensive rebounds?
"We knew exactly what to expect," Phelan said. "We had hoped that maybe we could execute a little bit better and get into a few things offensively. But they wouldn't let us do it. They break you down and take away what you want to do and almost everything you do is ad-lib."
Michigan reserve A.J. Granger, whose 3-pointer made it 38-24 at halftime, led the Spartans with 15 points, and Antonio Smith had 14 points to go with his 12 rebounds as the Spartans' usual point producer Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Jason Klein shared the workload.
"They don't appear to be that tall," Mountaineers forward Tony Hayden said. "But they're so quick."
Whitaker scored 13 and Gregory Harris and Aaron Herbert added 12 each for the Mountaineers, who had to win their three Northeast Conference tournament games just to finish above .500.
Mount St. Mary's also made the NCAA tournament in 1995, seven seasons after moving up from Division II. But they were trounced that year 113-67 by Kentucky.
A week shy of his 70th birthday, Phelan, who has spent his entire 45-year coaching career at the Emmitsburg, Md., campus, coached with just as much vigor as his counterpart.
When the game was well in hand, the small but loud contingent of about 100 Mountaineers fans began chanting "Hall of Fame! Hall of Fame!" for Phelan, who isn't enshrined despite trailing only Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Clarence Gaines in career victories.
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