Survival of near-elimination experiences is a common thread running through this year's Final Four field.
Not just winning four games to reach college basketball's biggest stage, with the national semifinals set for Saturday in Minneapolis - Virginia-Auburn and Texas Tech-Michigan State - but the heart-stopping fashion in which some of the outcomes were determined, even down to the final ticks of regional-title contests.
Michigan State dramatically ended the season of tournament favorite Duke and national player of the year Zion Williamson with a 68-67 triumph in the East Region final Sunday.
Kenny Goins' 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining gave the Spartans a two-point lead, and the Blue Devils' RJ Barrett made one of two free throws with five seconds to play. Duke never got the ball back and the nation's top-ranked team crashed in a regional final for the second straight year.
Virginia, meanwhile, turned a play that will stand with some of the NCAA Tournament's most memorable moments just to force overtime in defeating Purdue in the South Regional final on Saturday.
Auburn outlasted Kentucky 77-71 in overtime Sunday to win the Midwest but perhaps pulled off a bigger escape act in its first-round triumph over New Mexico State. After beating the Aggies, the Tigers became the first program in event history to knock off college basketball's top three winningest programs in succession: Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Texas Tech was the only Final Four participant that didn't see its game turn on final-possession drama. But the Red Raiders nursed a two-point lead on Gonzaga with 20 seconds remaining in the West Regional final before winning by six.
And Tech started behind everyone else headed to the Final Four - not in seed, but in preseason perception.
The Red Raiders, picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, are the only team headed to Minneapolis that wasn't part of the AP preseason Top 25. In fact, they didn't even receive a vote. Disrespect was a card that Tech coach Chris Beard played with regularity this season, and postseason.
"We don't mind the underdog chip on the shoulder part of our story," Beard said.
Auburn, which becomes the first school from Alabama to reach a Final Four, carried some of that feeling into the tournament, but coach Bruce Pearl was quick to remind that the tag only goes so far at his school.
"Now, this is important," Pearl said. "Auburn athletics, we're not Cinderellas in anything. We're really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. Been a long time since basketball's been good."
And it's been a long time since Virginia played in a Final Four. The Cavaliers got there in 1984, their second trip in four seasons. With five seconds remaining in their regional final on Saturday, it looked like the drought might grow even longer.
The Boilermakers, leading by three, fouled Ty Jerome, who made the first of two free throws. The second shot bounced off the front iron. Jerome said after the game he didn't miss on purpose, but everything that happened after that broke for Virginia.
Mamadi Diakite aggressively tapped the ball into the backcourt, where Virginia guard Kihei Clark tracked it down. He fired a long strike to Diakite, whose 10-footer fell through just before the buzzer sounded to force overtime.
Jerome said Clark made the "play of the century." The entire sequence will be remembered in the same way as the Lorenzo Charles dunk that gave North Carolina State an improbable national title-game victory over Houston, or Christian Laettner's game-winning shot for Duke against Kentucky.
So this Final Four features two first-time programs, Texas Tech and Auburn, and three first-time coaches. The Red Raiders' Beard, Virginia's Tony Bennett and the Tigers' Pearl are making their debuts on the final weekend. Michigan State's Tom Izzo is the Final Four veteran of the group, making his eighth appearance since 1999.
Only John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski (12), Dean Smith (nine) and Roy Williams (eight) have been to more.
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