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Sunday, April 2, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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STEVE KELLEY

Inspired Spartan rises above the rubble

Times staff columnist

INDIANAPOLIS - He was the only elegance in all of the ugliness.

Morris Peterson spinning to the basket like a dervish and softly laying the ball on the rim.

Mo Pete, taking the beating, posting up solidly and scoring inside.

Peterson, freeing himself from the elbows and hips and clutches of Wisconsin's Karate-Kid defense, to drop those two precious threes.

In a game that might have set the sport back about 50 years, Mo Pete played 21st-century ball, scoring 20 points and pulling down seven rebounds in Michigan State's 53-41 win over Wisconsin in yesterday's NCAA semifinal.

"He was the difference," Wisconsin Coach Dick Bennett said.

It was a game that was more elbows than jump shots. More bumps than bounce passes.

It was a throwback game. Like something the Mayans might have played.

The only ingredient missing - besides scoring - was a peach basket.

This was brickyard ball. The game should have been played at the Indianapolis Speedway.

Wisconsin shot 34.9 percent. It managed eight assists. It scored one more point than its football team did in a 40-10 win over Michigan State last season.

Only its Heisman winner, Ron Dayne, could have loved a game this rough-hewn.

They were the Bad-gers.

Yawn Wisconsin.

Michigan State has beaten them four times this season. The Spartans have the welts to prove it.

"The last time I played them I hugged all of them because I thought that was the last time I'd ever have to play them," said Mateen Cleaves, the Michigan State point guard. "They stay in your face. They bump you. They play hard. I'm happy I don't have to face them again. Ever."

Cleaves was shoved and hacked and hammered through most of the first half. He shot 11 free throws in the game, but what he really needed was a standing eight-count.

Wisconsin plays a pre-evolutionary style. There is more shoving and grabbing than you see on the D-train at rush hour.

The Bad-gers have been portrayed as a plucky throwback team.

Only if you think assault and battery is plucky.

This isn't the way the game is supposed to be played.

Every rebound isn't supposed to look like Greco-Roman wrestling. Every opponent's layup shouldn't be punished with a forearm shiver.

Playing Florida in tomorrow night's championship game will feel like a summer scrimmage compared with this game. Or at least it will feel like basketball.

"Anytime you play Wisconsin, you best believe it's going to be ugly," said Michigan State's Charlie Bell, whose tough, textbook defense on Wisconsin shooter Jon Bryant (two points on 1-for-5 shooting) was the perfect complement to Peterson's offense. "They make it very hard to score."

They make it very hard to walk.

And it is a testament to Michigan State's resolve that the Spartans, the only top-seeded team to make it to the Final Four, survived four games against the Bad-gers.

Michigan State played its own brand of Big 10 pigskin-hoops, forcing Wisconsin to rush its jump shots and punishing the Bad-gers 53-41 on the glass.

And when the Spartans needed points, Peterson was there.

Earlier in the week, he left the team to attend his grandmother's funeral in Mississippi.

He was so close to her, his mother didn't tell him about the death until after Michigan State had beaten Iowa State on Sunday to reach this Final Four.

Peterson neatly printed "R.I.P. Clara Mae Spencer," in Michigan State green on his white sneakers to honor her.

"I told my teammates she had the best seat in the house today," Peterson said.

He scored eight straight points early in the second half. When a jump shot fell giving the Spartans a 32-19 lead, Mo Pete pointed to the top of the dome.

Peterson's performance was an eloquent tribute to her memory.

"I pointed up there because I wanted her to know I felt her presence," Peterson said. "Let her know I knew she was watching. I wanted to win it for her."

Peterson's performance was an eloquent tribute to his grandmother's memory.

"It was like his grandmother was guiding the ball in," said Cleaves, his childhood friend and rival from Flint, Mich.

In a game that looked like a fistfight, Peterson threw the knockout punches.

One three with 8:41 to play. And another, with 3:48, that put the Spartans ahead 45-29.

"Sure he was hurting this week," Cleaves said, "but he did a great job of handling his grandmother's death. I tried to joke with him all week. Keep it light. Keep his spirits up.

"I didn't want to be down and then get him down. I mean he can't put something like that behind him. It's there with him. But somehow he was able to step up."

He played the game for Clara Mae Spencer and rose above the rubbish of this unsightly night.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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