SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Travis Trice stood on the Carrier Dome court with his parents and felt the tears starting to flow.
He put his head on his mother's shoulder, almost collapsing on her. His father gently rubbed the back of his neck, then kissed the top of his head.
Crying turned to sobbing, audible above the nearby Michigan State fans celebrating their improbable Final Four berth.
"First time I've seen him cry," teammate Branden Dawson said.
Finally, the Spartans senior guard bent over, sinking nearly to the ground, shoulders heaving. The thrill of victory is processed in different ways by different people, and for Trice this career highlight was expressed through a torrent of tears and a rush of humility.
"I don't deserve it," he said to his mom and dad between sobs.
He got that wrong. The wiry little senior deserves this Final Four trip as much as anyone.
The East Region Most Outstanding Player was simply overcome by what the Spartans had accomplished, and his role in it. Trice had scored a team-high 17 points in a tense, dramatic, 76-70 overtime triumph over Louisville, following games of 23 and 24 points in upsets of Virginia and Oklahoma. He's been brilliant since mid-February, when Michigan State pulled its season off the scrap heap and began this remarkable run as a No. 7 seed.
"He's taken this team on his back for the better part of a month now," said Spartans director of basketball operations Kevin Pauga.
And along the way he had taken his parents, Travis Sr. and Julie, on an incredible journey – figuratively and literally. If anyone has lived March Madness, it's them.
Travis Sr. is the basketball coach at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. For three exhilarating and exhausting weekends, they have been crisscrossing the country between the Wayne High games – featuring Travis' little brother, D'Mitrik – and Michigan State games.
"It just speaks to how close we are," Travis Jr. said. "They've driven countless miles, long hours."
Two weeks ago, Wayne High was playing in the district playoffs and Michigan State was playing in the Big Ten tournament. After the high school team had advanced, the family drove to Chicago to watch the Spartans.
Last week, Julie flew to Charlotte to see Travis Jr. play March 20 against Georgia in the NCAA tournament round of 64, then flew home to see Wayne play in the regional playoffs, then drove back to Charlotte with her husband March 22 to see the Spartans upset Virginia.
This week the madness continued. Travis Sr. and Julie went to Columbus for the state high school finals, packing their Michigan State gear and praying that the Spartans would beat Oklahoma Friday night without them. They did. And after Wayne won the state title Saturday night, the family and a carload of relatives hit the road for Syracuse.
They left at 1 a.m., pulling into town at 8:30. They checked into their hotel and got some sleep. ("Three to a bed," Julie said with a laugh.) Then went to the Dome to see their oldest son lead Michigan State to its first Final Four since 2010.
"We're exhausted," Travis Sr. said, happily weary.
Pausing for a few tears of her own, Julie reflected on a month they'll never forget – capped by four victories in two cities and a whole lot of net cutting.
"Friday night, I said, 'The Trices are going 4-for-4 this weekend,' " she said.
They did. And now the journey continues one more weekend.
"The best thing? Indianapolis is only an hour-and-a-half away," Julie said. "Thank you, God!"
If Michigan State was a long shot to get there as a No. 7 seed – the same seed, by the way, as last year's champion, Connecticut – Trice was an equally long shot to be its leader.
He looked like a mid-major recruit until blowing up the summer before his senior year, drawing the interest of much of the Big Ten. Tom Izzo made him a personal recruiting mission and got him, but nobody was expecting an instant impact from a kid who was about 160 pounds when he arrived on campus.
Trice was a solid sub as a freshman, averaging 4.5 points per game. But that spring he began to feel exhausted, not eating much and sleeping up to 16 hours a day. He was tested for mononucleosis but that came back negative. It finally was determined that he had a brain infection, which finally went away on its own.
But the setbacks didn't end there. Trice missed nine games his sophomore year because of a pair of concussions. Last year he missed a couple more games with injuries.
His senior season, Trice more than doubled his scoring average and has been the Spartans' leading scorer at 15 points per game. But when Michigan State's season hit the skids, he volunteered to come off the bench for five games before being reinserted in the starting lineup 10 games ago.
"He's a kid who's been through a lot," Izzo said. "He's earned it. Great kid, great family, he's the All-American boy."
Trice and all the Spartans said Saturday how hurt they were by losing in the regional final last year to Connecticut. That snapped Izzo's streak of sending every four-year player to at least one Final Four, but it also solidified a determination in those who were returning for this season to reach the last weekend of the season.
Now they've done it, to the expectation of very few.
"We were on the other end of this [a regional loss] last year," Trice said. "It almost makes going through it last year worth it, now."
The Spartans will advance to Indianapolis as a major underdog. But that's familiar territory for them these days.
"He's not done," Julie said of her oldest son.
The net having been cut and the Carrier Dome emptying out, Travis Jr. stood to the side of the court with his eyes finally dry. But the emotions were still close to the surface, audible in his hoarse voice.
"God is so good," he said. "It's been a dream my whole life to get to the Final Four."
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