Michigan State fans call them "The Flintstones," and Mateen Cleaves, Antonio Smith and Charlie Bell wear their hometown with pride, even spelling it out with tattoos on their shoulders.
Michigan State might be their home now, but the blue-collar attitude they were raised with in Flint, Mich., is never far away. And the No. 2 Spartans were at their blue-collar finest Saturday, holding No. 19 Wisconsin scoreless for almost 11 minutes on their way to a 56-41 victory in the Big Ten tournament.
Cleaves deserves much of the credit for the victory, rescuing Michigan State (28-4) from an early hole, and then making his teammates look good the rest of the game with crisp passes for easy baskets. It was his defensive pressure that kept Wisconsin (22-9) off balance, too.
"We came out the second half and really established our defensive pressure and intensity," coach Tom Izzo said. "When they (Wisconsin) run those curls and things they do offensively, they put so much pressure on you. Mateen really pressured them from the point. It kept them out far enough that the curls and everything they do weren't quite as effective."
Michigan State tied a school record with its 28th victory and is looking for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Cleaves, the co-Big Ten player of the year, struggled in his other three games at the United Center, shooting a woeful 8-of-45. But he scored 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting Saturday and dished out 11 assists. Morris Peterson, another Flint product, added 10 points.
Wisconsin got 15 points from Andy Kowske, but its backcourt was practically nonexistent. Ty Calderwood had two points, while both Mike Kelley and 3-point specialist Jon Bryant were scoreless.
"Michigan State demonstrated rather convincingly to us why they are our conference champions, because we got off to the bet start imaginable and they just shut the door," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said.
|Michigan State's Antonio Smith celebrates the win over Wisconsin. (AP)|
Kowske scored seven consecutive points as Wisconsin took an 18-8 lead with 11:52 left in the first half, and Badgers fans were sensing a repeat of the upset in January that gave Michigan State its only conference loss. They started heckling Cleaves, calling him overrated.
So Cleaves decided to show the Badgers just why he has taken Michigan State to its best ranking since a guy named Magic Johnson was wearing the green and white. He scored all six of his first-half points in the last 10:36, including a jumper that tied the teams at 22 at the half.
"We just weren't playing the way I think we have to play," Izzo said. "At times, we shoot the ball really well, at times we don't. But we can defend and rebound, and defending and rebounding are effort things. Sometimes people need to be jumpstarted."
The Spartans' defense actually kicked in before halftime, holding the Badgers to just four points in the last 11:52. They missed 14 of their last 16 shots and started the second half 0-for-8. They went 10:42 without a basket at the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
Michigan State, meanwhile, came out on a tear. Charlie Bell hit back-to-back 3-pointers to start a 12-0 run, and the Spartans were never in trouble again. Cleaves banked in a shot during the spurt, and also fed Antonio Smith for a layup.
"We were able to do that because of our defense," Cleaves said. "Our defense definitely was the key that got our running game going."
Wisconsin, which had shot a season-high 62 percent in its victory over Iowa on Friday, finished 17-of-58 (29 percent).
"We shot as badly today as we did well yesterday," Bennett said. "Mostly it was their defense, but we also missed a number of easy ones which would have given us some things to do down the stretch."
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