SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Travis Trice vowed a day earlier that he wasn’t going to cry should the Michigan State Spartans continue their improbable run to the Final Four.
The senior guard’s vow lasted no more than 10 seconds once the final horn sounded following Michigan State’s 76-70 overtime victory over Louisville in a thrilling NCAA tournament East region final Sunday. Amid the frenzied celebration, Trice squatted down at center court and began to sob uncontrollably.
“I was actually trying to hold it in,” he said. “I try to keep it even-keeled. I’m mad that I even cried now.”
That’s when senior forward Branden Dawson interjected by saying that was the first time he’s ever seen Trice cry.
Counted out as recently as six weeks ago, the No. 7 seed Spartans (27-11) let it all out in a thrilling display of perseverance and defensive grit to oust the No. 4 seed Cardinals (27-9).
“I’d like to tell you that I thought five different times this year that we were good enough to get to a Final Four, but I’d be lying to you,” said coach Tom Izzo, who described this as the best of seven regional final victories he has enjoyed. “But I think the burning desire to be in this Final Four, and they didn’t want to be a group that didn’t make it. I think it was more of the battle cry all year long.”
Trice led the Spartans with 17 points. Dawson had 11 rebounds, including a key putback of Bryn Forbes’ missed 3-point shot with 31.7 seconds left in overtime. And Denzel Valentine scored 15 points for a Michigan State team that won for the 12th time in 15 games. It’s a run that included them knocking off No. 2 seed Virginia last weekend and No. 3 seed Oklahoma in the regional semifinal Friday.
Michigan State will face Duke, which beat Gonzaga 66-52 in the South region final, on Saturday in Indianapolis. Wayne Blackshear had 28 points for the Cardinals (27-9) in a game that had 11 lead changes.
There could have been a 12th with 4.9 seconds left in regulation, when Cardinals forward Mangok Mathiang hit his first free throw to tie the game on a shot that hit off the heel of the rim and bounced high and in. But he wasn’t so fortunate on his second one, which also hit the heel and bounced wide left.
“Sometimes it can be a cruel game. I was positive we were going to win it when the first free throw went in because it shouldn’t have gone in,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said.
Louisville was denied a shot of making its third Final Four in four years and 11th overall.
It’s the ninth Final Four appearance for the Spartans and first since 2010, when they lost 52-50 to Butler in the national semifinals. Izzo has led them to seven Final Fours, including the 2000 national championship.
The Spartans did it with a roster that was regarded as having less talent than the team that lost in the regional final to Connecticut a year ago. Michigan State lost three of its top four scorers.
“Everybody doubted us. Everybody had us down and out,” Valentine said. “They didn’t have us making the tournament. We just kept strong. We believe in ourselves.”
The Spartans rallied from a 40-32 halftime deficit to eventually build a 61-59 lead with 3:57 left, when Trice hit two free throws.
Michigan State took control in overtime, starting with Forbes hitting a 3-pointer 26 seconds in.
The Spartans then sealed it in the final 31 seconds. Dawson did what Izzo’s teams have done well over the years: He put back a 3-point miss by Forbes to put Michigan State up 74-70. Valentine batted away Quentin Snider’s pass into the paint on the Cardinals’ next possession, and Trice sealed the win by hitting two free throws with 10.1 seconds left.
Michigan State’s defense — Izzo’s other trademark — played havoc with the Cardinals. After hitting 17 of 32 attempts in the first half, Louisville managed to make six of its final 32.
It is the third straight year one conference has had two teams in the Final Four. The Southeastern Conference did last year with Kentucky and Florida and the Big East had Louisville and Syracuse in 2013.
The last time the Big Ten did it was 2005 with Michigan State and Illinois.
Though Blackshear stepped up his performance in what became his final collegiate game, Cardinals junior forward Montrezl Harrell struggled.
Harrell missed his last five shots and was off on five of nine free throw attempts in what was also his final game. Harrell has already indicated his intention to enter the NBA draft.
“It hurts a lot,” Harrell said.
“It’s over,” added Blackshear, a member of the 2013 national championship team. “But I get to look back and say I had a great career.”
Blackshear had his nose bloodied with 3:57 left, when he hit a driving layup and was fouled hard by Matt Costello. Dillon Avare came off the bench to hit the free throw while Blackshear missed a few possessions while being tended to on the bench.