Games become great when both teams realize it
AUSTIN, Texas Michigan State's Kelvin Torbert was just about to take his second free throw with four-tenths of a second left when he saw Kentucky's Chuck Hayes exiting the game one final time.
Torbert, a senior who has been one of the more maligned four-year players under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, went over and hugged the Kentucky senior. Hayes, who is regarded as one of the classiest players in recent memory, was leaving the floor, knowing he wouldn't get to a Final Four in his career.
Izzo made sure to give Hayes a pat, too.
|Michigan State||2005||No. 5|
|North Carolina||2000||No. 8|
|Mississippi State||1996||No. 5|
This is when you know you're witnessing something special, again. Something that you actually saw just 24 hours earlier, in a neighboring state (New Mexico), in another Elite Eight classic ... something, actually, that you caught on television the night before at a regional final site in Chicago.
When this game was over, when Michigan State had outlasted Kentucky 94-88 in double-overtime at the Erwin Center in the Austin Regional on Sunday, it capped one of the most electric Elite Eight weekends since the field expanded in 1985.
"I'd say it was the four best games I've seen from regional finals in my era," Izzo said. "Louisville and Illinois made great comebacks, while this game was one punch and then get punched and it never ended, going back and forth. This was one of the best games I've seen, although the Illinois game was a great game, too."
When a team doesn't hesitate to congratulate its competitor, you know you're witnessing a game that was a pleasure for both teams to compete in for 40-plus minutes.
When Louisville came back Saturday on West Virginia to win the Albuquerque Regional at the Pit, the Cardinals' coaches and players were quick to discuss how valiant the Mountaineers were in making 18 3s and going up by 20 points. They were on the court, still going through the net cutting process, yet weren't about to take all the credit for a classic game.
From what we could tell, the euphoric Illinois players were still quick to congratulate the Arizona players on what was a tremendously draining and spectacular game with the Illini rallying from 15 down with four minutes left in regulation.
We're not sure if the same thing occurred in Syracuse on Sunday afternoon, but North Carolina had to pay homage to Wisconsin for putting up a gritty fight that went down to the final few possessions in what should have been the easiest of the four games this weekend. It was the only one that didn't go into overtime, but it was hardly a walk.
"I saw those games yesterday and I feel for those other players, guys like Channing [Frye] and Salim [Stoudamire of Arizona] and the guys from West Virginia," said Hayes, his eyes watery and red. "I knew this was going to be a tough game. Both teams deserved it."
These players are savvy to their surroundings and were well-versed on what had occurred Saturday. They watched the comebacks in Albuquerque and Chicago and had an inkling that they could be in for something similar.
"I've seen the two overtime games [Saturday] and it's March Madness," said Kentucky junior Patrick Sparks. "We were a part of another one and had our chances. We didn't take advantage of it. This was such an emotional game and draining that it's such a bad feeling. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth and my stomach hurts.
"I feel bad for Chuck because he deserves a Final Four and that's hard to fathom that he won't have a chance to play in one," said Sparks.
Sparks made this game epic with his 3-pointer at the end of regulation a double-clutching, buzzer-beating shot that rattled around the entirety of the rim before dropping at the buzzer.
The officials reviewed his foot placement to determine if it actually was a 3-pointer. They spent a good five-plus minutes reviewing the tape as if it were the Zapruder film, having CBS blow up the image of his foot to ensure that there wasn't any doubt that it was a 3-pointer.
"It seemed like that ball sat on the rim for a half hour and that's how long it seemed they reviewed it," Izzo said. "But I told my team that it was good because I didn't want to argue it. I felt we beat them once, or all but beat them, so we would just go through it a second time."
The two teams scored six points each in the first overtime and, like Arizona against Illinois on Saturday night, Kentucky couldn't run a decent play on the final possession of the first overtime (Arizona ended up losing the game in that final 11 seconds whereas Kentucky had another chance in overtime No. 2).
Michigan State outlasted Kentucky in the final overtime, outscoring the Wildcats 13-7.
"I anticipated that this would be a hard-fought war, a battle," Michigan State senior Chris Hill said. "But to think it would come close to those games [Saturday], especially Arizona-Illinois? I didn't think it would be like that, but here we were in two overtimes."
As great as this weekend was, let's not forget what transpired before it:
• Vermont beating Syracuse with T.J. Sorrentine burying a late 3-pointer that was so deep, it seemed to be shot from Burlington.
• Bucknell pulling off the biggest shocker of the Tournament by beating Kansas.
• West Virginia beating Creighton on a fast-break dunk in Cleveland and then shocking Wake Forest in a riveting double-OT game.
• UW-Milwaukee stunning Alabama and BC at the same site.
• Bob Knight making it back to the Sweet 16 with Texas Tech.
• NC State sending defending champ Connecticut packing on a Julius Hodge three-point play.
• Arizona's Salim Stoudamire beating Oklahoma State on a jumper in the final seconds.
• North Carolina getting a questionable traveling call on Villanova's Allan Ray to help it move on to the Elite Eight.
Those moments were the precursor to this weekend.
What's the encore? Hopefully it will be just as good.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.