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Final Four journey marked by OT thrillers


March 29, 2005 | NCAA Tournament coverage on ESPN.com

The road to the Final Four has been an incredible journey. There have been outstanding performances, Cinderella stories like West Virginia and Wisconsin, new stars in the coaching profession shining, and unsung heroes coming through.

I know a lot of people say that I'm a cheerleader, that I sing the praises of college basketball. If you can't get excited about a bunch of kids playing their hearts out, there's something wrong!

Michigan State endured the emotion of Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks' 3-pointer at the end of regulation.
Just look at the two overtime regional finals from Saturday and Sunday's Michigan State-Kentucky double-OT thriller. I got goose bumps watching those games going into overtime with so much on the line. If college basketball doesn't whet your appetite and you don't get excited about the energy, enthusiasm and inspiration of the sport, well, that is a shame.

Louisville and Illinois are in the Final Four after a pair of incredible comebacks. The Cardinals were down 20 points in the first half thanks to a barrage of 3-pointers by West Virginia. But Louisville didn't give up, rallying behind senior Larry O'Bannon's 24 points in the second half and overtime.

The Illini were down 15 to Arizona in the second half but didn't quit. A 20-5 run to end the second half sent the game into overtime. Tremendous defensive pressure made the difference as Illinois rallied to win by one point.

Arizona played sensational basketball, but then junior guard Deron Williams hit big shots to send Illinois to St. Louis.

I thought the Illinois game was over. I was ready to write my ESPN.com column about the great season the Illini enjoyed. Well, that season is still going on, baby!

Coach Bruce Weber had to feel sensational about his team's comeback. To know his kids never gave up, he had to be so proud – he had to be on cloud nine. There is nothing better than seeing that effort, that they never quit.

Meanwhile, Michigan State endured the emotion of Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks' 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Officials counted Sparks' improbable shot after a long evaluation of the replays to see if his foot was on the 3-point line. Sparks' trifecta tied the game, but the Spartans prevailed in two overtimes in an incredible Maalox Masher.

Now Louisville and Illinois will meet in an exciting Final Four contest. After last Saturday's thrills, this matchup should be special. Michigan State, after beating Duke and Kentucky to make it to St. Louis, has North Carolina in the other national semifinal – talk about a tough road!

The ride to the Final Four has been incredible. Let's hope the last three games of the season (two national semifinals and Monday's championship game) are nearly as good as Saturday's thrills and Sunday's excitement.

Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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