NDIANAPOLIS - Their mission began a year ago, when the season ended with a Final Four semifinal loss to Duke.
It resumed at the start of this season, minus their best player and floor leader, Mateen Cleaves.
And it ended last night, successfully, at the RCA Dome, where Michigan State's 89-76 victory over Florida brought the Spartans their first national championship since Magic Johnson's team beat Indiana State and Larry Bird 21 years ago.
It seemed fitting that Johnson and former Spartan coach Judd Heathcote were among the sellout crowd of 43,116 to provide inspiration for seniors Morris Peterson, A.J. Granger, and Cleaves, who stared fiercely in Johnson's direction at various points in a game the Spartans took control of early.
For Florida, whose future promises success considering that 10 players on coach Billy Donovan's roster are freshmen or sophomores, last night marked the bittersweet end to a wildly successful season that seemed to get better with each game.
The Gators (29-8) seemed to find their identity in the last three weeks as they survived a first-round scare against Butler, then rolled through the high-rent district of college basketball, picking up victories over Duke a week ago and then, in Saturday's Final Four semifinal, North Carolina.
Florida's journey had been characterized by second-half bursts that overwhelmed opponents.
Michigan State (32-7), the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four in a tournament of upsets, would have none of that. The Spartans built a solid 43-32 halftime lead and made it clear that anything the Gators threw at them would be fired back in their faces.
Even when Cleaves, who scored 18 points and was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, went down in a collision with Florida's Teddy Dupay five minutes into the second half and limped to the locker room, the character of the Spartans emerged.
Michigan State had gone the first 13 games of the season without Cleaves, who had a stress fracture of his right foot, and it survived five minutes without him last night.
''I told the trainer they were going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one,'' said Cleaves.
With 25.3 seconds left, Cleaves walked - with a limp - to the end of the court and again looked in the direction of Johnson with a smile on his face, his fist upraised with a symbolic No. 1 in the air.
''Florida was one of the tougher teams we played all year,'' said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. ''But I'd like to take my hats off to my four seniors. They came here four years ago. We made some promises and Michigan State answered the promises.''
Even the Gators conceded that.
''They played a good game and they deserved to win,'' said Dupay. ''They should be proud of themselves. They really played well.''
Donovan, who clearly is on the fast track to become one of the game's best coaches, conceded, ''It's tough when you're this close. But we lost to the better team.''
''They're a great basketball team,'' said Florida sophomore forward Mike Miller. ''It's not like this is Mateen Cleaves and a bunch of spastics. They're a great basketball team.''
With Cleaves providing the early leadership, the Spartans jumped to a double-digit lead, the biggest deficit faced by the Gators in the tournament.
Florida, which had used its depth as a weapon in earlier games - Donovan routinely went with a 10-man rotation - simply wasn't good enough. Were it not for the steady play of center Udonis Halsem, who scored a game-high 27 points, the Gators would have been put away much sooner.
As it was, it would have taken the greatest comeback in championship game history for the Gators to win. The best they could do in the second half was cut the Spartans' lead to 6 with 12 minutes left.
The Florida fans, who included Celtic coach Rick Pitino - Donovan's former coach and mentor - had some hope when Cleaves left with the ankle injury, but the Spartans never missed a beat.
''Oh, my God, this is what I came back for,'' said Cleaves. ''This was a total group effort this year.''
So it was. From Cleaves, to Peterson, who had a team-high 21 points (including a couple of rally-killing 3-point shots down the stretch), to junior forward Andre Hutson.
''This is exactly what we wanted, starting in October,'' said Hutson. ''Not only did we want this, but also coach Tom Izzo wanted this. He was in our face all game and that gave us a lot of intensity as well. We were focused all year as well as tonight. A lot of that is due to Coach Izzo. He is a reflection of our team.''
Izzo put together a unit that slowly and steadily built up to its final triumphant moment. He couldn't put into words the emotions runnning through him when that moment arrived.
''This is more overwhelming than I thought it would be, if you want the truth,'' said Izzo.
As well it should be. A mission that began a year ago at the Final Four in Tampa had become a mission accomplished.