Michigan State's Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Cassius Winston talk about preparing for the FInal Four. The Detroit News


East Lansing — The first reactions came as the bus pulled up to the Breslin Center.

Michigan State’s players and coaches saw the parking lot was packed, as if another basketball game was taking place inside.

Their eyes, collectively, opened wide.

It was April 1, and the clock was churning its way toward 1 a.m. On that bus were the Spartans, fresh off their victory over top-seeded Duke on Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament.

The win sent the Spartans to the Final Four, a place they haven’t been since 2015. Since then, the tournament had been nothing but a barrel of frustration. Three seasons — three straight exits in the first weekend. Whether it was the 2016 or 2018 teams that might have been good enough to win it all or the 2017 team that was young and untested, each result was a gut-punch to the fan base.

So, maybe that’s what was going on Sunday night. After Michigan State knocked off college basketball’s Goliath, the fans erupted, joy and frustration all pouring out at once.

The video clips started to pop up all over social media. Former players like Denzel Valentine celebrating in his living room and plain-old Michigan State fans, running around kitchens and local bars, screaming and embracing. From alumni clubs hanging out at bars to buddies crowded around the TV, the elation was hard to contain, many grown men and women moved to tears.

What Michigan State’s victory meant to a fan base that has endured far more than losing a few basketball games wasn’t lost on those who provided it.

“We came back, and the players couldn't believe the parking lot was packed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “There's always people that are involved in that, but it wasn't the number, it was the passion that that number had that night.

“And I have gotten letters. We always get letters or emails from all over the country. But I think because we've been through a lot here. I think for people it's part of the process of people just expressing the platform we have and what it can do in a positive way. And if I can be a small part of that, that's as good as it gets.”

Once the bus rolled into the tunnel at the Breslin Center, the players and their coach made their way out to a stage that had been quickly assembled. About 5,000 fans, who had been there for roughly an hour-and-a-half, erupted.

The players had their phones out, doing their best to document it all. Nick Ward clutched the championship trophy, a smile stretching across his face. Izzo grabbed the microphone and promised the Spartans would do whatever they could to force an even bigger celebration next week.

Kenny Goins, the fifth-year senior and only player on the roster who was around for the last Final Four run in 2015, was taken aback.

“No one expected it to be as packed as it was here,” said Goins, the hero of the win over Duke thanks to his 3-pointer in the last minute. “And I think that goes to a testament how great Spartan Nation is and why we always say it's the best fans in the world here. That was just incredible. They really had to open up the upper bowl for all the fans to fit in.”

The feeling has hardly waned the past two days. While the players already have begun the preparation for Saturday night’s game in Minneapolis against Texas Tech, the community hasn’t come down.

“It's been a lot of love,” junior guard Cassius Winston said Tuesday. “Took a lot of pictures these last days at the gas station, just everywhere. People just supporting us and things like that. So a lot of people just want us to see us do our best and want us to get this job done.”

In some ways it feels like this team already has done at least one job, if that job was to give Michigan State something to get excited about. A Final Four will do that, even at a place that has become accustomed to them.

The team, though, has one more item to cross off the to-do list — win the program’s third national championship. That only comes with beating Texas Tech.

“Man, all we've been talking about is Texas Tech,” Winston said. “We can't win no national championship game without beating Texas Tech. We'll get to a national championship game if it's ahead of us. Right now, we have to focus on the opponent ahead of us.”

Win or lose this weekend, however, the Spartans won’t soon forget what Sunday’s win over Duke did.

“What I came back to the other night for me was, it just says it all,” Izzo said. “So that night was special to me because it was later than normal. It was bigger than normal, and it was louder than normal.

“Looking out there and seeing more people than in my hometown that were — it's been exciting.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau