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SPARKS' THREE FORCES FIRST OVERTIME, BUT SPARTANS PREVAIL

Date story published: Monday, March 28, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas -- They do things big in Texas. Kentucky and Michigan State affirmed that Old West credo last night in an NCAA Tournament region final for the ages.

Michigan State won by a nose at the finish line. Well, actually two overtimes past the finish line.

In the first double-overtime regional finals game since Texas Western beat Kansas in the Rupp's Runts year of 1966, Kentucky lost 94-88.

Actually, Michigan State won, as did 16,239 in attendance in the Austin Region final and anyone else lucky enough to watch waves of emotion crash one after another onto the scene.

"The game could have gone either way," UK senior Chuck Hayes said. "We had it in our hands just like they did."

Millimeters and split-seconds loomed large in a tense game seemingly destined for heartbreak and exultation.

Patrick Sparks saved Kentucky, at least temporarily, when he hit a desperation three-pointer at the end of regulation.

Michigan State (26-6) led 75-72 as first Sparks and then Kelenna Azubuike missed three-point shots in the final 10 seconds. By providence or good fortune, Azubuike's miss ricocheted to Sparks at the top of the key.

"It was wild," Sparks said of his emotions. "It went from, 'Man, that was our last shot' to 'There's the ball, go get it!' "

Sparks retrieved the ball and had the presence of mind to step back outside the three-point line. Sparks then moved his right foot forward to elude the onrushing Kelvin Torbert and fired inside the final second. The shot bounced off the rim, then off the backboard and then teetered on the left side of the rim before falling in.

That tied the score at 75-75. Or did it? The referees went to a sideline monitor to see whether Sparks' right toe was on the line.

More than five minutes passed as various combinations of referees watched replay after replay. Finally, lead ref Jim Burr raised three fingers on each hand to indicate Sparks' shot was a trey and the game would head into overtime.

"We knew if it took that long, they didn't have enough evidence to change the call," Sparks said.

"A shot like that changes momentum, and it did!" freshman Joe Crawford said. "We jumped out to get a four-point lead."

Michigan State did not get the ball past halfcourt in the first minute of overtime. UK took a 79-75 lead and sensed victory.

Michigan State's offensive rebounding turned the tide. The Spartans got five shots and four offensive rebounds on its next trip downcourt. After three misses, Azubuike fouled MSU center Paul Davis.

Davis missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Shannon Brown, whose monster game included 8-for-10 shooting and 24 points, grabbed that rebound.

After Maurice Ager missed a three-pointer, Brown hit a shot from beyond the arc to bring Michigan State within 79-78 with 3:15 left.

"That was huge," said Sparks, who noted Hayes was on the bench in foul trouble. "I think that was a momentum shifter."

Added UK freshman point guard Rajon Rondo, "That was kind of like a dagger."

Kentucky (28-6) had the last chance to score in the first overtime. Azubuike missed a heavily contested shot in the lane, and Rondo knocked the rebound off a Michigan State player and out of bounds to give UK the ball back with 25.5 seconds left.

Kentucky never got another shot at the basket.

"The play was designed for me to get to the hole," Rondo said. "But we didn't space out. They clogged up the middle."

Inside four seconds, Rondo handed the ball off to Azubuike. Azubuike searched for an opening but couldn't get off a shot before the buzzer.

A designed play off the tap in the second overtime got Torbert a breakaway dunk attempt, but Azubuike fouled out when he disrupted the shot four seconds in. With Azubuike out, Hayes saddled with four fouls and Michigan State focused on denying Sparks any open looks, Kentucky's offense died.

The Cats did not get a point in the second five-minute overtime until Randolph Morris made a free throw with 1:52 left. That reduced Michigan State's lead to 86-82.

Kentucky closed within 88-86 with 29.2 seconds left.

But Michigan State made six of six free throws in the final 12.2 seconds to win the game. Alan Anderson made four of those free throws to improve his NCAA Tournament accuracy to 21 of 22.

The double-overtime game capped a wild region final weekend and brought a smile of appreciation to the face of CBS television analyst Billy Packer, a hard-boiled observer who's worked NCAA tournaments for decades.

"I don't know if any sport has had a better weekend," he gushed.

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