MSU-Oklahoma matchup brings up memories of Cleaves-Najera collision

It was 16 years ago that MSU's Mateen Cleaves and Oklahoma's Eduardo Najera were both knocked unconscious as Najera was setting a screen.

Robert Deutsch

A Michigan State-Oklahoma matchup brings back memories of one of the more violent collisions in NCAA Tournament history.

It was 16 years ago that MSU’s Mateen Cleaves and Oklahoma’s Eduardo Najera were both knocked unconscious as Najera was setting a screen midway through the second half of a Midwest Regional semifinal game in St. Louis.

The game was delayed for about 10 minutes while Cleaves, a rugged 6-foot-2 point guard, and Najera, a menacing 6-8 power forward, received medical attention.

What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that both players returned to play only minutes later.

The collision took place with 9:34 remaining in the game. Cleaves was back on the floor with 6:54 to go. Najera, who was taken to the locker room to have his chin bandaged, returned with 4:25 left.

That would never happen in this day and age with such a growing awareness on concussions in sports, but back then, well, none of it seemed quite so bad.

The players, you know, just had their "bell rung."

"I had recruited Najera a little bit," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Thursday during a news conference in Syracuse. "What I knew about him, he was tough. And Cleaves as tough. I think (former NFL coach) Bill Parcells and guys like that would have been envious of that hit.

"I was worried for both guys, to be honest with you. He (Najera) got it in the jaw and Cleaves got it in the head. It was a hell of a clean hit, an accidental hit.

"But, wow, those two guys, man, it was a hockey hit or a D-back against a receiver. Something you don’t normally see in basketball. I just talked to Mateen about that the other day.

"This day and age, both guys would have probably had four concussions and they wouldn’t have returned for a couple years.

"But back then they just both shook it off and played on. Shows you where we’ve come."

The Spartans, leading 36-31 at the time of the collision, held on for a 54-46 victory on the way to Izzo’s first Final Four appearance in his fourth season as MSU’s head coach. Cleaves and Najera both played in the NBA.