The Bell Tolls: NFL's best QB ... could be the Saints' Drew Brees

Drew Brees led the Saints to their first Super Bowl this season.
US Presswire photo
Drew Brees led the Saints to their first Super Bowl this season.

As usual, this is the sweet spot for coveringSuper Bowl week. The hype has been pretty much been reported, and the deadline pressure of the big game can wait.

Hated to miss the GQ party in Miami Beachon Thursday night, but there are a few more events looming that will allow this trusty correspondent to make amends.

WHY THE COLTS WILL WIN: Look to Peyton Manning
WHY THE SAINTS WILL WIN: It's the defense that will rise

But first, a few items still stirring in my notebook:

Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning: The Colts star is widely considered the best quarterback in the NFL, and it's tough to argue. In his 12th season, he's passed for more than 50,000 yards and ranks among the top five all-time in that category, as well as for career TD passes and W's. If he wins a second Super Bowl, some are ready to crown P-Money as the greatest passer ever. Hmmm.

Who's had better numbers than Manning the past four years? Brees, who has an NFL-best 18,298 yards and 30 300-yard games since collaborating with Saints coach Sean Payton. Both have thrown for 122 TDs during that span.

Manning says the aspect of Brees' game that he appreciates the most is his aggressiveness. Brees, who set an NFL record this season with a 70.6% completion rate, isn't afraid to fire passes into tight windows.

Even so, someone asked Brees, 6-0, 209, if he feels he gets slighted in the best-quarterback conversation because of his lack of height. Manning is 6-5.

"It's been a survival mechanism," Brees says of his lack of height. "When you don't have one thing, you have to utilize other things that are strengths."

And for Brees, that includes vision and deft movement in the pocket.

Win one for the Grandpa Mudd: Super Bowl 44 marks the final game for Colts guru Howard Mudd, who is retiring as arguably the NFL's most respected offensive line coach.

Not that his unit — which allowed an NFL-low 13 sacks in 2009 — will need any incentive beyond winning a Lombardi Trophy. But they'd sure like to send Mudd into the sunset with another Super Bowl ring, which would likely mean they withstood the rush from a Saints defense that physically abused Hall of Fame-credentialed quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favreen route to Miami.

How does Mudd's pending retirement resonate?

"It's sad," said longtime Colts center Jeff Saturday. "Sad and happy, I guess. I'm happy for him and Shirley, his wife, starting his life, post-football.

"But he's all I've known as an offensive line coach. He calls guys to play well; he has a standard that he's not going to go below and I have a lot of respect for that. Then off-the-field, we call him Grandpa Howard. He's a totally different guy. On the field, there are times I totally want to punch him in the face, but off the field he's a totally different guy. I've seen him with my kids, literally hoist them on his shoulders, playing like he's a papa. So it's the full person we're going to miss. Coaching wise, you're not going to find one better than he is. The guy can dissect defenses better than anyone I've ever seen. He sees things. So that part will be tough. But it will be off-the-field stuff that I will miss the most."

Remember me? Saints D-coordinator Gregg Williamsgenerated many headlines and undeniable bulletin-board material in declaring on Nashville's WGFX-FM that he wants his unit to knock Manning around (or out) with some "remember me shots."

He hardly regrets stirring the pot.

"I'm not going to be polite about it," Williams said. "That's what defense is all about."

Williams' work in his first season with the Saints is validated by their appearance in the last game of the season. His aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme is at the foundation of a big-play unit that scored an NFL-high eight TDs off defensive returns and ranked third in the league with 26 interceptions.

Such impact is rooted in a pivotal decision last offseason. Williams — who said there's no coach in the NFL he has greater respect for than Tennessee's Jeff Fisher— turned down an opportunity to return to the Titans.

Why did he choose the Saints?

"Drew Brees," Williams says. "I really wanted an opportunity to go to a team with an offense where you could make a few mistakes and still be successful. It's a different mind-set. You can take a few more risks."

The PR factor: With the first real deadline in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union looming in early March — when the 2010 league year could begin as an "uncapped year" — the rhetoric is heating up.

What was most striking from this view in the DMZ? The contrasting tone from each side in their public discourse this week.

NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith, asked during his press conference on Thursday to rank the chances of a lockout in 2011, said, "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 14."

NFL commissioner's Roger Goodell's response during his state-of-the-league presser on Friday: "I couldn't make that prediction. I hope he's wrong. I hope it's not a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Goodell seems intent on publicly expressing the theme that the NFL doesn't want a work stoppage, which could turn off fans of the nation's most popular sport. The union contends that the NFL's low-ball initial proposal and behind-the-scenes maneuvering contradicts the public stance.

"The idea that ownership wants a stoppage is absolutely false," Goodell said. "You don't make money by shutting down your business."

Goodell was asked by USA TODAY's Tom Pedulla if there are lessons to be learned from Major League Baseball's loss of fan support during the mid-90s, when a strike caused the cancellation of the World Series.

"There are no benefits to stopping the game," he said. "If it comes to that, we will all fail."

One reporter phrased a question during Goodell's press conference by characterizing Smith as "smooth."

Indeed, Smith can express himself quite well and the NFLPA's press session was a more polished presentation than previous conferences with Gene Upshaw.

But "smooth" sounds like a code word that Obama detractors have used. What's so wrong with a man speaking well enough that he doesn't stumble over his words?

And Goodell isn't smooth?

Bottom line: In a high-stakes negotiation where the interpretation of facts and data are central to the differences between the sides, Smith and Goodell are both pretty smooth, which says much about why they're in their high-powered positions in the first place.


Here's why the Colts will win: Just take a look under center

Peyton Manning's presence will be too much for the New Orleans Saints to overcome and is a big reason the Indianapolis Colts will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLIV
By Eric Gay, AP
Peyton Manning's presence will be too much for the New Orleans Saints to overcome and is a big reason the Indianapolis Colts will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XLIV

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback is a four-time MVP winner, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIand the winningest signal-caller of the last decade.
It starts with Peyton Manning.

And he's the reason the team will add a second Super Bowl trophy in four years to its collection Sunday night.

WHY THE SAINTS WILL WIN: Defense will rise to challenge

Let's consider what's working in the Colts' favor:

Manning's arsenal: His weapons are well known. Reggie Wayne has earned four consecutive Pro Bowl bids and has scored 35 touchdowns over the last four years. Rookie Austin Collie and second-year wide receiver Pierre Garcon are blossoming into prime options. And tight end Dallas Clark, Manning's safety blanket, had his first 100-catch season this year.

But it's the Colts quarterback who blends those physical weapons with the ammunition inside his head — his astute reading of the defense — to make the Colts offense so potent.

Consider how Manning dismembered the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. Jets coach Rex Ryan, as promised, delivered new and confusing defensive schemes that limited the Colts to six points through the first five drives. But patient Manning adjusted, found holes in the Jets' coverage and sliced the team's top-rated defense apart for 24 points over the ensuing four possessions.

No comeback too big: The Saints' top-rated offense is formidable, for sure. The rallying ability shown by Drew Breesin several games this season (i.e., a comeback from a 24-3 deficit at the Miami Dolphins in Week 7) suggests that the team who has the ball last in Super Bowl XLIV might emerge the winner.

But Manning, in a manner reflective of his MVP status, has shown an unmatched ability to respond to a deficit in crunchtime this season. The Colts faced second-half deficits in seven of their last 12 games (and trailed in the fourth quarter six times). So even if the Saints offense jumps out to a big lead Sunday, it's impossible to count out the Colts.

Time in the pocket: The Saints battered Brett Favre but did not sack him, in their win against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Getting to Manning will be more difficult. The Colts surrendered the fewest sacks in the NFL this season, with 10 of the 13 takedowns coming against Manning. His stout offensive line and his quick decision-making make Manning less susceptible to drive-altering hits.

The Saints ranked 13th in the NFL with 35 sacks this season. Their front four might need help bringing pressure on Manning. And that could expose another problem: If the Saints unleash blitzes to pursue the Colts quarterback, that could open up fresh passing lanes for Collie, Clark or even tailback Joseph Addai.

Colts have a defense, too: The Saints offense, which has averaged 38 points a game in the playoffs, will be the most potent unit the Colts have faced this season. And the uncertain availability of all-pro defensive end Dwight Freeney clouds the effectiveness Indianapolis defenders might have. But the Colts defense, ranked 18th in the regular season, has risen in the postseason as it did in its run to a Super Bowl XLI title three years ago. They have surrendered 20 points through two games and have surrendered an average of 86.5 rushing yards (down from 126.5 in the regular season). With or without Freeney, Robert Mathis, Gary Brackett and the Colts' fast defenders will bring pressure that limits New Orleans' scoring prowess.

But ultimately, it will be Manning who has the biggest impact on whether the Colts rise or fall in Super Bowl XLIV. And in a game where the two teams are so evenly matched, count on the poise and unyielding fire Manning has displayed all season to help the 12-year veteran hoist his second Lombardi Trophy.


Why Saints will win: Sharper, defense will be on the ball

Darren Sharper's knack for game-changing plays on defense could be the difference if the New Orleans Saints take down the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
By Chris Graythen, Getty Images
Darren Sharper's knack for game-changing plays on defense could be the difference if the New Orleans Saints take down the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

But producing the mother of all victory parades for the Big Easy certainly won't be easy. To take advantage of said opportunity, the Saints will need to rely on their signature opportunism and dynamism.

The New Orleans defense can provide the sweet taste of a Cafe Du Monde beignet but can alternately (and frequently) cause more heartburn than a heaping helping of jambalaya. And Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning is certain to dig in against a 26th-ranked pass defense that allowed 235.6 yards a game this season, even though it faced mostly pedestrian passers outside of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo. Considering thePhiladelphia Eagles' Kevin Kolb and the Atlanta Falcons' Chris Redman feasted on the Saints, Manning must be licking his chops.

But New Orleans has to use that likelihood to its advantage.

All-pro safety Darren Sharper intercepted nine passes this season and returned three for touchdowns amid his record 376 interception return yards. That's the kind of momentum-swinging, game-altering play that could decide the Super Bowl. And it's not far-fetched for a team that forced 39 turnovers, second best in the league this season, and will probably see a Miami sky raining footballs.

Matters will certainly be helped if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' troops — notably defensive end Will Smith— can bring Manning to his knees a few times, as Williams has hinted they will. The New York Jets got to Manning early in the AFC Championship Game, and the Colts offense stumbled and sputtered for most of the first half. If New Orleans can replicate that start and give its supercharged offense time to build a more imposing lead than the 17-6 advantage the Jets managed, Indianapolis will be in trouble.

But the New Orleans offense must hold up its part of the bargain, too, and balance should be the blueprint. The Saints are at their best when their trio of complementary tailbacks —Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell — get involved early, enabling quarterback Drew Brees to start lofting lollipops over overburdened eight-man fronts. But the team struggled late in the season when Brees was firing away too frequently— he averaged nearly 43 pass attempts a game as the team struggled to go 2-2 in December.

That won't do against the Colts, who surrender 4.3 yards a carry and allowed more than 2,000 rushing yards this season, even though they often played from ahead when their opponents were hard-pressed to stay committed to the run.

Softening up Indianapolis' middle should expose the flanks to Brees' pinpoint arm, which clicked at a 70% success rate this season. The Colts don't really have a lockdown cornerback, and their secondary will likely be even more vulnerable if injured all-pro defensive end Dwight Freeney (ankle) is unable to generate the pressure he normally provides. That means time for Brees to pick on rookie cornerbacks Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers — if he's able to overcome a foot injury to get into the lineup — on the edges while giving tight end Jeremy Shockey and Bush room to roam in the middle, where his game-breaking moves could leave a few Colts defenders needing new horseshoes.

A little patience and a little pilfering Sunday, and no one will be asking "Who dat?" when the Saints come marching home anymore.


Conflict for Archie Manning: His son vs. his beloved Saints

Archie Manning played for the Saints from 1971-1982.
By David J. Phillip, AP
Archie Manning played for the Saints from 1971-1982.

Few people have sacrificed more for the Saints than Manning, a Mississippi native who became a New Orleans icon as the talented but battered leader of mostly hapless Saints teams from 1971 to 1982. On Sunday, Manning knows that a Saints win over the Indianapolis Colts would spark an explosion of emotion in a city still rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 4½ years ago — a city whose beloved Saints have won more than half of their games only nine times in their 43 seasons.

Now, however, a major obstacle stands between the Saints and the NFL championship: Manning's 33-year-old son, Peyton, yet another icon of New Orleans.

"In a way, I kind of regret they're going to the Super Bowl against one of my son's teams," Archie Manning, 60, said in an interview with USA TODAY. "We're kind of outside the madness."

For four decades, the Mannings — Archie, wife Olivia and sons Cooper, Peyton and Eli — have been prominent in New Orleans. They're adored by residents for Archie's years as a Saints quarterback, their community involvement (which have included leading Katrina relief efforts) and the athletic success of the sons, who were stars at a local high school.

Ask residents here about the Mannings, and you'll hear answers such as "first family of New Orleans" and "the Kennedys of New Orleans."

Archie and Olivia's two-story Greek Revival home on First Street in the famed Garden District is a stop on most walking tours of the city, just down the street from the former home of writerAnne Rice.

Yet New Orleanians face the prospect of cheering against native son Peyton.

"I'd hate to be Archie on Sunday," said Gary Solomon, 23, a family friend. "I can't think of another family more iconic and more loved in a community. They're the Kennedys."

Between workouts in Miami this week, Peyton Manning acknowledged the irony surrounding Sunday's game.

"I'm sure you have Saints fans who never thought this day would ever come," he told reporters. "Believe me: I never dreamed I would be playing against the Saints in a Super Bowl. Talk about special."

The Manning family has made it clear that although they love the Saints — Archie cheered New Orleans' recent overtime victory in the NFC championship game from Peyton's house in Indianapolis — they'll be in Peyton's corner on Sunday.

But Cooper Manning, 35, a partner in a New Orleans investment firm, acknowledges the situation is "a little awkward."

"These are very unfamiliar emotions," Cooper said of taking sides against the team his father played for. "We'd like to get caught up in the moment like everyone else is. But you have to be restrained."

The legend of Archie

Archie Manning, a star quarterback at the University of Mississippi, was drafted by the Saints in 1971. For 12 years, he was a great quarterback on lousy teams, said Bobby Hebert, a former Saints quarterback and local broadcaster. The Saints were so bad, the team earned the nickname the "Aint's," and some fans attended home games with paper bags over their heads.

Archie's grit during those tough years was admired by fans, Hebert said.

"He's a big part of Saints history," Hebert said. "He showed real toughness."

After his retirement in 1985, Archie thought he'd move the family to his native Mississippi. He held a family meeting and asked his sons where in Mississippi they would want to live.

"Cooper said, 'I don't want to live anywhere in Mississippi. We like it here,' " Archie Manning recalled. "No one wanted to leave New Orleans. So we stayed."

His sons grew up in the house on First Street, tossing the football on the front lawn and attending nearby Isidore Newman School, where they played basketball, baseball and football. Archie attended every one of his sons' games, pushing them to excel, said Billy Fitzgerald, Newman's athletic director who coached all three sons in basketball and baseball.

That commitment to family continued even after Peyton left to play at the University of Tennessee and Archie was broadcasting for the Saints.

Archie would watch Eli play at Newman on Friday nights, fly to wherever Peyton was playing with the Volunteers on Saturday, then meet up with the Saints on Sunday to call their game, said Jim Henderson, his broadcast partner then.

After the Saints game, an exhausted Archie Manning would pull out a legal pad on the team's charter flight home and write out his schedule for the following week, Henderson said. The routine went on for years.

"I don't think you can do a better job than what Archie and Olivia have done with those kids," said Henderson, now the Saints play-by-play announcer on radio.

For 30 years, Archie Manning ran a golf tournament for the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and was involved with the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, an annual golf event that raises millions of dollars for local charities, said Solomon's father, also named Gary.

"Archie never turns down anybody," the older Solomon said.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, unleashing floods that destroyed 80% of New Orleans, Archie and his eldest son, Cooper, evacuated their families to Oxford, Miss., Cooper Manning said.

Less than a week after the floods, Peyton and Eli, then 29, joined a flight that transported 31,000 pounds of baby formula, diapers, water and other items to ruined neighborhoods.

Archie, who briefly evacuated his family to Mississippi during the Katrina crisis, attended events honoring firefighters and other first responders and helping to raise funds to rebuild the city. His home was relatively unscathed by the flooding.

In February 2006, with the city in ruins and the Superdome battered, Archie attended a meeting of the Sugar Bowl Committee. The Allstate Sugar Bowl, a major moneymaker, is held each year in the Superdome, the Saints' stadium. The bowl game's future in New Orleans seemed bleak after Katrina, said Jerry Romig, another committee member.

Archie called universities and members of Congress, assuring them the Superdome would be rebuilt and the Sugar Bowl could return, Romig said.

"If he picks up the phone and calls you, you're going to take that call," Romig said. "He worked hard convincing people the Sugar Bowl will be back."

During their eight-month exile, there was never a doubt the Mannings would return to New Orleans, Cooper Manning said.

"This city's a big part of who we are," Cooper said. "It's our friends, our families, our roots. We have ties to Mississippi, but we're New Orleans guys."

The Manning family's return to the city was a morale boost to some residents who were questioning whether they should come back, City Council President Arnie Fielkow said.

"They're an anchor to the city of New Orleans," he said. "They contribute in so many ways."

'Peyton is the enemy'

Across New Orleans this week, fans are balancing their fervor for the Saints with reverence for the Mannings.

Tony Reginelli, Peyton and Cooper's football coach at Newton, said he would like to see his former player win his second Super Bowl but also is excited for New Orleans. He has followed the Saints since their first game at Tulane Stadium in 1967.

Last month, Peyton Manning mailed Reginelli two blue Colts sweatshirts, a subtle appeal for his support, Reginelli, 75, said.

"I'm glad they're both there," Reginelli said of the Colts and Saints, whose quarterback, Drew Brees, also is active in the community. "You have two great teams, two great quarterbacks and two great cities that deserve this."

Darryl Berger, 62, a real estate investor, saw his sons play football and basketball with the Manning boys and became a family friend. He'll be in Miami to watch the game. His strategy: Cheer for whoever has the ball.

"It's a win-win," Berger said. "Sure, it's a conflict in the sense that everyone likes Peyton and everyone likes the Saints. But if the team loses, there's no one you'd like to see triumph more than Peyton."

For others, the matchup is less of a dilemma. For every home game since 1987, Lionel Alphonso, 62, of Violet, La., has dressed in a fleur-de-lis-emblazoned pope outfit and blessed the team before kickoff. The Saints' winning season has eased the pain of losing his home and business to Katrina, he said.

For three hours on Sunday, the hometown hero will be Public Enemy No. 1, he said.

"We love Peyton. We love Archie," he said. "But for this one game, Peyton is the enemy."

Fan Al D'Aquin said he remembers fighting over the No. 8 jersey — Archie Manning's old number — as a kid in Little League football. Archie Manning will forever be New Orleans' most iconic figure, he said. But come Sunday, nothing will be more important than a Saints victory.

"As much as we love the Mannings and love what they've done for the city, our love for the Saints trumps that," said D'Aquin, 47, who is driving a black-and-gold RV to the game in Miami. "It's been 43 long years."

In the Garden District neighborhood where the Mannings live, yard signs emblazoned with "Who Dat!" — the Saints' rallying cry — mark the front yards of homes. On nearby Magazine Street, shops sell "WHO DAT NATION" T-shirts, and one sweet shop, Sucre, sells cakes in the shape of Saints and Colts helmets.

At the Rum House Caribbean Taqueria, which fills with Saints fans on game days, the lunchtime talk this week was dominated by Sunday's game — and the irony of a Saints-vs.-Manning matchup. Loyalties were clear.

Sarah Dunn, 27, a gallery owner, said she recognizes what the Mannings mean to New Orleans and all they've done for the city post-Katrina. But the city, including her family, has waited a long time for the Saints to make it to the Super Bowl.

"I'll cheer when (Peyton) gets sacked," Dunn said. "But, he's a great guy."


Oudin wins to give USA spot in Fed Cup semifinals

Melanie Oudin celebrates with the American flag after defeating Julie Coin of France during their first-round Fed Cup tie on Sunday in Lievin, France.
By Michel Spingler, AP
Melanie Oudin celebrates with the American flag after defeating Julie Coin of France during their first-round Fed Cup tie on Sunday in Lievin, France.

Oudin defeated Coin 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 in just over two hours in the first reverse singles match.
LIEVIN, France (AP) — The United States secured a spot in the Fed Cup semifinals after teenager Melanie Oudin beat Julie Coin on Sunday to give the Americans an insurmountable 3-0 lead against France.

The U.S. will next face either Russia or Serbia on April 24-25.

The 18-year-old Oudin broke Coin in the fifth game of the second set and clinched the match when the Frenchwoman shanked a forehand.

Oudin had saved two break points at 5-5 in the first to force the tiebreaker, where she hit three straight winners to close out the set.

Alize Cornet had been scheduled to face Oudin but France captain Nicolas Escude decided to replace her with Coin after Cornet acknowledged she struggled with her nerves against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the opening singles Saturday. Mattek-Sands rallied from 5-2 down in the first to win in straight sets, giving Cornet her sixth loss in six Fed Cup singles matches.

In the second revers singles matchPauline Parmentier of France defeated U.S. yongster Christina McHale 6-4, 6-4.

Both teams were missing their best players. Serena and Venus Williams skipped the event, while France played without Marion Bartoli, Aravane Rezai and Virginie Razzano.

The USA improved its record against France to 11-1 in Fed Cup play.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Edwin Valero stays unbeaten, eyes fight with Manny Pacquiao

Venezuela's Edwin Valero, right, exchanges punches with Mexico's Antonio DeMarco. On Valero's chest is a tattoo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his nation's flag.
By Eduardo Verdugo, AP
Venezuela's Edwin Valero, right, exchanges punches with Mexico's Antonio DeMarco. On Valero's chest is a tattoo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his nation's flag.

DeMarco sat in his corner and declined to come out for the 10th round of their title fight. The Mexican was well behind on points and, though he had no obvious injuries, officials said he retired on the advice of his handlers.
MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — Edwin Valeroof Venezuela retained his WBC lightweight belt by stopping Mexico's Antonio DeMarco on Saturday night.

When the fight ended, Valero was eight points up on the scorecards of all three judges.

Valero improved to 27-0, with none of his bouts going the distance. DeMarco had only his second career defeat against 23 wins and a draw.

"My physical strength started to show," Valero said. "Little by little, I started gaining ground. The first three or four rounds I couldn't hit him with my jab, but then I started to connect."

Valero picked up a gash across his forehead in the second round, which came from an elbow by DeMarco that was ruled accidental. Valero needed three stitches afterward to close the wound.

Valero said he'd like a fight with Manny Pacquiao, which would force him to move up several weight categories.

"That's the fight the world wants to see," the Venezuelan said.

There could be many problems standing in the way of a Pacquiao-Valero fight.

Valero has been denied a U.S. visa because of a drunk-driving charge in Texas. He claims he was turned down because of his strong support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Valero also had a severe motorcycle accident in February 2001 that left him with a fractured skull and required surgery to remove a blood clot. He eventually failed a pre-fight exam in New York. He was handed an indefinite suspension that effectively banned him from fighting in the United States.

The Venezuelan claimed the belt with a second-round TKO of Antonio Pitalua in April last year, and defended it in December when Hector Velasquez retired after six rounds.

DeMarco took an interim version of the belt with a 10th round TKO of Jose Alfaro in October last year.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Illinois dispatches Kalin Lucas-less No. 5 Michigan State
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Illinois' Jeff Jordan (13) and Mike Davis (24) sandwich Michigan State's Garrick Sherman during the Fighting Illini's five-point triumph over the visiting Spartans.
By Heather Coit, AP
Illinois' Jeff Jordan (13) and Mike Davis (24) sandwich Michigan State's Garrick Sherman during the Fighting Illini's five-point triumph over the visiting Spartans.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Even without Kalin Lucas on the floor, No. 5 Michigan Statealmost held off Illinois.

Demetri McCamey was just too much for the Spartans.

"Playing without Lucas, it's no excuse. Everybody has to play without somebody," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I told McCamey he's twice the player he was when he played at our place. He's so much of a different player."

McCamey, who lost his starting job earlier in the Big Ten season, had 22 points and 11 assists to lead Illinois to a 78-73 upset of No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday night, sending the Spartans to another loss without Lucas — who said he expects to play Tuesday against Purdue.

The Illini led by a point at halftime and by seven in the game's final minutes. But they couldn't put the Spartans away until freshman D.J. Richardson hit a free throw with 15 seconds to play for a 76-73 lead.

Mike Davis (FSY) added 16 points for Illinois. Draymond Green's 17 points and 16 rebounds led Michigan State without Lucas, who sprained his right ankle in a loss to Wisconsin on Tuesday.

"I told them it didn't matter, they were still going to come at us, they have a lot of weapons," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "Tom exerts his intensity, his will to be successful. Those kids just play off of that."

Illinois (16-8, 8-3) got within a game of the first-place Spartans (19-5, 9-2) in the Big Ten.

Richardson and McCamey finished off the Spartans in the game's final minutes. McCamey hit a 3 with 37 seconds to play and with MSU forced to foul, Richardson made three free throws in the final 26 seconds and Davis slammed home a dunk at the buzzer as the crowd rushed the court at the Assembly Hall.

Lucas nearly helped the Spartans win from the bench. With the Spartans trailing 57-64 and 7:17 remaining, he got into the huddle and told his teammates to calm down. Then he pulled his replacement, Korie Lucious, aside for a one-on-one chat.

When play resumed, Lucas could be seen sitting next to Izzo, a spot usually reserved for assistant coaches.

The Spartans eventually got within a point, making it 66-65 with 3:44 remaining, but never regained control. They were down two points with less than a minute to go, but McCamey's last three-pointer of the night essentially iced it. Illinois finished 8 for 18 on 3s.

"I'm 50% proud of my team," Izzo said. "But disappointed. We just gave them 3 after 3 after 3."

The Spartans fought back from an early 10-point hole to make it 35-34 at halftime, and even briefly took the lead in the second half.

McCamey opened the second half with 10 points in nine minutes to keep Illinois in the game. At times, he appeared to be the Illini's only option.

His back-to-back 3s put the Illini up 53-47 lead with 13:10 to play, but Michigan State scored the next five points, and went ahead after McCamey missed a three-pointer on the next possession and Chris Allen made one with 11:21 to go.

Illinois tied the game at 55 with 10:05 remaining on a putback by Mike Tisdale. A minute later, Brandon Paul's dunk gave Illinois a 59-57 lead and started a 7-0 run.

"We made our runs and they made theirs," McCamey said. "They kept coming back again and again."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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