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Spartans Apply the 'Cat Nip

Michigan State Holds Off Kentucky in Two Overtimes: Michigan State 94, Kentucky 88

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page D01

AUSTIN, March 27 -- It took not just one overtime but two -- plus an interminable video review over the placement of Patrick Sparks's Kentucky-blue-and-white sneaker when he rattled home the final three-pointer of regulation -- for Michigan State to earn its way to the NCAA tournament's Final Four.

But given their lack of stars and egos, the Spartans' 94-88 victory fittingly came in classic blue-collar fashion. Instead of dazzling second-seeded Kentucky with sheer talent, Michigan State grinded out its double-overtime triumph in an NCAA region final that rivaled Saturday's pair of overtime games for drama down the stretch.

Michigan State's Paul Davis (15 points, 11 rebounds), second from right, and the rest of the SPartans grit their teeth as they anticipate the final seconds and a trip to the Final Four. (Ronald Martinez -- Getty Images)

After 40 minutes of basketball during which the lead rocked back and forth 15 times, Michigan State quit swapping shots and summoned the strength to assert itself one last time -- drawing on Alan Anderson's clutch free throw shooting, sophomore Shannon Brown's magic touch from three-point range, withering defense and a rock-solid refusal to give up.

"It's all about having confidence without being cocky," said Brown, who led the Spartans with 24 points.

With the victory, Michigan State (26-6) advances to its fourth Final Four under Coach Tom Izzo and a date with top-seeded North Carolina on Saturday in St. Louis. Kentucky (28-6) heads home dejected after having let the momentum and a four-point lead slip away in the first overtime -- its disappointment heightened, no doubt, by the fact that in-state rival Louisville marches on.

The game's wild finish was set in motion with less than a minute to go by a midair collision that dropped Kentucky freshman Ramel Bradley headfirst to the floor. After he was helped to the sideline, Sparks -- a 71 percent free throw shooter -- took his place in the lineup with Kentucky trailing 73-72 only to miss the first shot of the one-and-one he inherited.

Brown then hit two free throws to put the Spartans up 75-72 with 19 seconds remaining.

With 16 seconds left, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith called a timeout to set up a last shot to force overtime. The play yielded a three-point attempt by Sparks, which fell short. Teammate Kelenna Azubuike chased down the rebound and heaved up a three-pointer, but it missed, too. The long rebound caromed out to Sparks, who lofted up a prayer from the top of the key. The ball danced on the back, front and side of the rim before finally falling, and Sparks raced to the sideline to hurl an expletive and wag a finger at CBS's sideline announcers.

The scoreboard read 75-75, but amid the mayhem, it was immediately clear that officials questioned whether Sparks's sneaker was touching the three-point arc before he released the shot. Referee James Burr called for video of every angle available, and officials huddled on the sideline to review them all -- regular size and magnified -- as the Erwin Center crowd of 16,239 rumbled with discontent.

Nearly six minutes elapsed, and fans started heckling, bordering on unruliness.

"I was scared," Kentucky's Chuck Hayes confessed. "I was just praying and hoping that from the angle that they were seeing it from it was a clear-cut three-pointer. I didn't want it to end like that."

Izzo's stomach was churning, too, but he told his players the shot was good and started preparing them for overtime.

Finally, Burr flung his arms skyward, signaling overtime.

"I don't know how many angles he had, but he showed me every single angle he could, and I still really couldn't find anything that would overrule my original decision," Burr said in a statement afterward.

The first overtime was a mirror of regulation, with the lead trading hands until the score was knotted at 81. Kentucky inbounded for the last possession. Freshman point guard Rajon Rondo held it until six seconds remained, then dished to Azubuike, who dribbled until he had no shot as the horn sounded.

"As soon as I got it, I should have tried to shoot it right away," Azubuike conceded. "But I put it on the floor to try to create space. By the time I did that, time ran out."

The Spartans took charge in the second overtime. Center Paul Davis (15 points, 11 rebounds) jammed in a ball that was rimming out for an 86-81 lead.

By then, the meticulously dressed Smith had flung off his suit jacket and was stomping the floor to get his players going. Izzo was stomping even harder, greeting his Spartans at every timeout with double-clenched fists, clenched jaw and a shout of "Come on!"

Hayes hit consecutive layups to pull the Wildcats within two. But Michigan State's Anderson foiled Kentucky's hopes of fouling its way back into the game, hitting four free throws in the period to seal the victory.

"It was a great game. A great game," said a disappointed Hayes, shaking his head. "You figure if you give everything you have and all your hard work, you'll get the results you want."

Said Michigan State's senior guard Chris Hill: "We had to find a way to get it done, and we did. We made it happen. That is the bottom line."

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