MARCH ON!

AUSTIN, Texas – They may not be great, but they’re awfully good. They’re may not be big, but they play huge. They may not be stars, but they command the spotlight. And they may not be where they’re supposed to be, but here they are anyhow, up on a ladder, laughing and waving and cutting down the nets, having survived a game that would have killed anyone older than a college kid, an exhausting, double-overtime war, a classic by sunset, a game they thought they had won once, but had to win again and again.

Say what you will about these Michigan State Spartans, but say it in St. Louis, because that’s where they will play their next game, as one of the four remaining teams in the college basketball’s biggest contest. The Spartans are certainly the most surprising team in the Final four – and they should be the most exhausted.

Above – and beyond. This 94-88 victory Sunday was an amazing game by any measure, the culmination of perhaps the greatest semifinal weekend in NCAA history, three games going into overtime and this one, well, this one squeezing both teams like dishrags, draining them of everything they had. Anyone who doubted the Spartans’ resolve wasn’t watching. Anyone who doubted their character wasn’t watching. Anyone who doubted their seniors wasn’t watching.

And for a few nervous moments, anyone who loved Michigan State wasn’t watching – because you were hiding under the couch.

Admit it. You were, right? Never more than in the final second of regulation. This was one of those moments that will hang in your mind for eternity. The Spartans were one second away. They were one inch away. They were the thinnest of margins from their dreamed-of glory, a razor’s edge, a cilia, a sheath, a three-point lead with the clock all but gone. Then Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks, who a minute before had been hanging his head on the bench, the goat of the game, having missed the front of a one-and-one that would have tied it, found the ball in his hands by a pure accident, a ricochet off the rim, and there was no time left and he let it fly.

Anything could have happened. By that point, what hadn’t? The entire arena seemed to inhale as the ball rolled off the front of the rim, rolled around the back and finally, innocently, plunked through the net.

Sparks dropped his fist, then yelled the relief and ferocity of a freed prisoner. The game was tied. The miracle that would have been a Michigan State victory seemed ready to evaporate.

“No biggie,” the Spartans seemed to say.

They’d just come back and do it again.

Davis does it again

And they did. Actually, they did it twice. They survived the first overtime by clamping down so hard defensively that Kentucky dribbled out the final overtime seconds without even getting a shot.

And they did it in the second overtime by rebounding their own misses, by making their free throws and by never losing their cool. They did it with an amazing shooting night from Shannon Brown, voted the regional’s most outstanding player, who hit his first seven shots, missed just two all game, and made five three-pointers en route to a 24-point performance.

They did it with Paul Davis, continuing his string of hard-nosed performances, grabbing the offensive rebounds when MSU needed them most, putting back his own miss at a crucial moment, slamming home a rebound at another. He finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

They did it with their juniors, their sophomores, their freshman, and, yes, with their seniors. Here was Kelvin Torbert, playing some big minutes, flying down the court to block a Rajon Rondo shot, then racing downcourt to take the ball down the baseline for a reverse lay-up.

Here was Chris Hill, with a reverse lay-up of his own, and a big three-pointer.

Here was Alan Anderson, in the second overtime, at the free-throw line, which is where this saga began, isn’t it? Anderson’s missing free throws at the end of the Big Ten tournament opener against Iowa, a loss that had everyone outside the MSU locker room believing the NCAA tournament was an exercise in futility?

But believe, believe, and you never know. Here was Anderson, 12 seconds left in the second OT, and he hit the first, and he hit the second, and the game was iced, and the Spartans were on their way.

Down goes Coach K and Tubby

And finally, in the closing seconds of this epic, here was Tom Izzo, getting his head rubbed by his taller players and looking like a man who had sweated through his suit – twice.

So? Call the drycleaner. Izzo’s team, in less than 48 hours, had survived Mike Krzyzewski and Tubby Smith, Duke and Kentucky, two of the most storied programs in college basketball history. MSU’s reward will be a date with North Carolina and Roy Williams this Saturday night.

But honestly, does that scare anyone now?

There is no predicting what this team can do. At one point Sunday night, Kentucky tried to score and found green jerseys smothering it at every turn. One shot denied, another shot altered, another shot hassled and missed, and then the ball came shooting out and here came a three-on-one break, the crowd rising to its feet in anticipation. Torbert took the ball and seemed to throw it softly into the abyss, it just hung there, waiting -who is that pass to? – until Maurice Ager came soaring down the middle to do what Torbert always knew he would, snag the ball midair and ram it through the rim. It was as if they were playing their own private game, in a rare and private air, above the rim, above expectations.

Above – and beyond. Beyond expectations. Maybe beyond belief. Then again, belief, this season, seems to be measured by the Spartans and nobody else.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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