AUSTIN, Texas — A 3-point prayer, answered. One overtime, then another. And when the dust settled on the breathtaking finish to an astonishing weekend, Michigan State was holding the last ticket to the Final Four.
Patrick Sparks’ desperation 3-pointer at the end of regulation danced oh-so softly on the rim, bouncing four times before falling through for Kentucky. But wait. Was his right toe on the line?
Five minutes of tension passed while the referees reviewed the replay over and over at the scorer’s table. It was a 3-pointer, all right, forcing overtime.
Yet even with the wind knocked out of them, the Spartans refused to fold. As the final seconds of the first overtime ticked away, Kelvin Torbert stood near halfcourt, smiled at his teammates and screamed, “Let’s go!” And they did, not even allowing a last shot.
Then the Spartans took over in the second overtime, pulling away for a 94-88 victory and capping a weekend filled with heart-stopping finishes. Michigan State is headed to its fourth Final Four in seven years, and will face North Carolina on Saturday.
The trip to St. Louis will be sweet vindication for the Spartans’ upperclassmen, a group that’s been chided for being soft, weak and underachieving. Torbert, Alan Anderson and Chris Hill, seniors who were so close to breaking the chain of Final Fours begun by their predecessors from 1999-2001, simply wouldn’t let it happen.
Torbert went 5-of-6 from the foul line in the second overtime and Anderson was 4-of-4, keeping Kentucky from ever leading again.
“It will go down in history as a great college basketball game,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “It hurts right now, but some of our guys will appreciate it later on.”
After Louisville and Illinois both advanced Saturday with improbable comebacks that ended in overtime, this was the first time in NCAA tournament history that three regional finals went to an extra period. And only once before had it happened in two of the four games, in 1992.
Fueled by Sparks’ longball at the end of regulation, the second-seeded Wildcats jumped to a 79-75 lead at the start of the first extra period. But they never led again and Smith remains without a trip back to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998. Kentucky has gone down in the regional finals three times, twice now to the Spartans.
The loss also deprived the Bluegrass State of having two teams in the Final Four; only Louisville will be there now.
Instead, there’s the chance for a title-game matchup between a different set of regional rivals: Michigan State and Illinois, the only team that finished ahead of the Spartans (26-6) in the Big Ten this season.
With 5:25 left in regulation, fifth-seeded Michigan State seemed poised to advance easily. Torbert followed a block on defense with a basket on the other end, putting the Spartans up 70-62.
But Ravi Moss hit a 3-pointer with 1:55 left and Kelenna Azubuike made another with 1:06 left, making it a one-point game. Shannon Brown upped it to 75-72 by hitting two free throws with 19.8 seconds left.
What followed is a play that was scrutinized courtside for more than five minutes, but it seemed like an eternity to all the peopleholding their breath inside the Erwin Center.
Sparks missed a 3-pointer, then Azubuike got the rebound and dribbled to the right corner, only to miss another. The rebound went all the way to Sparks near the top of the key and his shot hung on the rim and then fell in.
A junior who grew up in Kentucky dreaming of playing for the Wildcats, Sparks walked away stonefaced, flashing an index finger before breaking out in wild celebration. He also redeemed himself for missing the front end of a one-and-one with 27.1 seconds left after he replaced Ramel Bradley, who collided so hard with Anderson he was taken to the locker room with a bloodied chin.
As officials reviewed whether the ball was shot in time (it clearly was) and whether the tip of Sparks’ right blue-and-white sneaker was touching the line, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was holding a clipboard and a pen, ready to diagram plays.
“Whether they count the basket or not, there’s no doubt we’re going to win this game,” Izzo told his team.
Referee James Burr said he wasn’t worried about the clock, strictly Sparks’ feet. He said he felt comfortable with the decision after asking CBS to zoom in.
“I don’t want to make a decision until I can see every angle you can possibly show me,” Burr said. “When they finally blew it up, in my humble opinion, it showed that the kid was behind the line.”