Guard powers 'Cats to win over archrival
In a state where every boy grows up with visions of game-winning shots dancing in his head, Patrick Sparks lived the Ultimate Kentucky Fantasy against Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a state where every boy grows up with visions of game-winning shots dancing in his head, Patrick Sparks lived the Ultimate Kentucky Fantasy on Saturday afternoon.
The scrawny, pasty, burrheaded point guard had a game against archrival Louisville that will be talked about in this hoops-obsessed state until Sparks is gumming his food in a retirement home.
They'll talk about how the kid who embodies the myth and lore of Kentucky basketball sank three free throws with 0.6 seconds left to beat the Cardinals 60-58 in perhaps the most thrilling of the 36 series meetings.
They'll talk about how the kid who grew up in Central City, an old coal-mining town of about 5,500 in the western part of the state, wouldn't let the 'Cats lose, scoring 12 straight points in the second half to lead a stirring comeback from 16 points down.
They'll talk about how the kid who spent hours shooting daydream game-winners in the backyard, at the school gym -- "anywhere you have a hoop," according to his stepmom, Michelle -- busted a game-high 25 points on the hated Cards.
They'll talk about how the coach's son stabbed Kentucky hero-turned-villain Rick Pitino in the heart with catburglar calm and Ken Jennings wits under incredible last-minute pressure.
They call this annual bloodbath The Dream Game. For Patrick Sparks, it was the Wildest Dreams Come True Game.
"It's the old kid-in-the-backyard, game-on-the-line kind of thing," said Sparks' dad, Steve, who had to watch the game on television from London, Ky., 2½ hours away, where his Muhlenberg North High School team was playing in a tournament. "It's a classic. You hear kids talk about it all the time."
Now they'll be imitating Sparks, who just earned himself a first-class spot in the Kentucky basketball annals. Elected office and endless free meals are now in his future.
"It's a big moment," Sparks allowed, with customary stoicism.
It's a moment that reverberated from Paducah in the western tip of the state to Pikeville in the Appalachian Mountains. Ending Pitino's two-year reign of terror over his former school means that much to Kentucky fans -- and the fact that the hero was a homegrown boy originally passed over by the Wildcats makes it all the sweeter.
"When you think about how it turned out," Sparks said, "it's just crazy."
It's truly crazy that Sparks now owns arguably the biggest made free throws in Kentucky basketball in 25 years, since Kyle Macy dried his hands on his socks and made the free throws that beat Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1978 regional finals. Lacking a scholarship offer from the 'Cats after a stellar career playing for his dad at Muhlenberg North, Sparks went to Western Kentucky. When coach Dennis Felton left that school for Georgia after Sparks' sophomore year, he took it as his opportunity to try a bigger stage.
The first place he visited -- Louisville. Pitino offered a scholarship and thought Sparks was set to commit -- but when he returned home from his campus visit there was a message waiting from Tubby Smith. When Sparks told Pitino that he wanted to visit Kentucky before making a decision, Pitino saw the writing on the wall and rescinded his offer.
Smith got it right on the second try, getting the guy he passed over in favor of Josh Carrier and Brandon Stockton. Sparks came into this game as UK's second-leading scorer and top assist man -- and now, after Saturday, as its undisputed king of clutch.
For a long stretch of the second half, Sparks was the only thing keeping Kentucky in the game. Louisville had dominated the first half, getting easy basket after easy basket and throttling the 'Cats' half-court offense for a 32-16 halftime lead. It was UK's fewest points in a half since a 3-for-33 shooting disaster against Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four.
Kentucky came out with increased energy in the second half, but Louisville still maintained a 10-point lead with 7½ minutes to play. That's when Sparks went crazy, hitting three straight 3-pointers and then converting an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 54-50 with 2:55 to play.
A thin and tired Louisville team, which was hurt badly by an eye injury that took out freshman center Juan Palacios for the final 17 minutes of the game, tried to hold on. In the final 87 seconds the lead changed hands five times, with the deciding sequence going down like this:
Louisville led 58-57 when Sparks drove to the basket. Cut off on the baseline and in trouble, the junior quickly called timeout with 4.8 seconds left. Even then, Sparks' brain was in high gear; he knew that a baseline out-of-bounds situation usually yielded a good scoring opportunity.
Time left -- 4.8 seconds. It would last an eternity for Pitino and the red majority of the 20,088 fans in Freedom Hall.
At that point, Louisville's defense broke down. Larry O'Bannon stayed with Azubuike, but Francisco Garcia -- who performed well below All-American level -- left the inbounds man to double Azubuike on the sideline. The inbounds man was Sparks.
Azubuike took two dribbles away from the double-team -- but also away from the basket. For an instant it looked like he would have to fling up a no-hope shot, but Azubuike jumped and dumped a pass back to wide-open Sparks in the corner.
Sparks set his feet behind the 3-point line and saw Ellis Myles rushing to close out. In a remarkable display of last-second cool, Sparks pump-faked, sending Myles flying toward him. Then Sparks jumped -- not straight up but a foot to his right, initiating contact with Myles and selling it to the officials by crashing to the floor.
Foul. Three shots. Freedom Hall went crazy.
But Sparks still had to make the free throws.
While the officials huddled around a monitor to determine how much time should be put on the clock, Sparks paced around the foul line. His teammates didn't come near him.
"It was kind of like when a pitcher has a no-hitter going," Sparks said. "Nobody wants to be around him."
Smith called him over. Sparks didn't want to go. Finally, he did.
"Where you going for Christmas?" Smith asked, trying to break the ice.
"Going home," Sparks responded and then went back to the foul line.
"I was just ready to knock 'em down and get out of here," said Sparks, an 85 percent foul shooter.
"I was confident," said Michelle Sparks. "I haven't seen Patrick miss many free throws, and I've seen him shoot a lot."
Swish. Swish. Swish. Ballgame.
Kentucky led for less than six of the game's 40 minutes -- but it led at the end. Along the way it matched its largest comeback from a halftime deficit in school history.
In a hotel room in London, Ky., Steve Sparks and his Muhlenberg North players were bouncing off the walls.
"I was worried about the people in the room below," Steve Sparks said. "I hope they weren't Louisville fans."
During the game, Steve stayed in constant phone contact with Michelle, seeking the details he couldn't get on TV. His instructions to his wife before the game: "Look, you can't go crazy on me. I've gotta get some info."
Michelle maintained her poise during the game -- although she might have been the only one in an emotionally overwrought Freedom Hall. Back home in Central City, Steve is sure they were all going nuts.
Until yesterday, Central City was most famous as the hometown of the Everly Brothers. Now it's also the hometown of a certifiable Big Blue hero, whose performance Saturday will be talked about until Patrick Sparks is an old man.
"It's one of those wonderful stories, to be honest," Steve Sparks said. "It's truly a Cinderella story."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.