Niyo: Trice's tears tell of Spartans' journey

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Syracuse, N.Y. — The moment it hit him, the moment he realized he was headed to the Final Four, Travis Trice was on all fours. Sobbing uncontrollably, while his father rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder, talking to him about their shared faith.

They were at center court inside the Carrier Dome, and Trice, flanked by his parents, had just finished a nationally-televised postgame interview. All around him his teammates and their families were celebrating Michigan State's 76-70 overtime victory over Louisville in the East Regional final, a win that would send the Spartans to Indianapolis, fulfilling a destiny only they'd truly believed in for most of the last year.

And for Trice, the stoic senior leader for this tight-knit group, all this was finally too much to bear.

"I was trying to hold it in," he explained later. "I didn't want to cry."

But as he thought back to all he'd been through — a life-threatening illness and career-altering injuries — and all his team had been through, all the hard work and heartache, well, that irrepressible freshman guard was right.

Travis Trice's sister Ace gives him a big kiss after MSU beats Louisville.

A telling text

It was LouRawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., then a recruit in Wichita, Kansas, who'd texted the Spartans' upperclassmen last March, after seeing photos of them in tears in the locker room following Michigan State's Elite Eight loss to Connecticut in New York. "The next time we have this feeling," he wrote them, "it's going to be tears of joy."

And it was Nairn who told Trice on Saturday — and again Sunday morning — something similar.

"He told me, 'You're going to cry after the game,' " Trice said. "I'm like, 'No, I'm not.' "

Yet there he was late Sunday afternoon, the even-keeled senior suddenly an emotional wreck, minutes after he'd sealed this victory — and this improbable Final Four berth — with two free throws in the waning seconds of overtime.

"Honestly, that was the first time I've seen Travis cry since I've known him," said Branden Dawson, his fellow senior and former AAU teammate. "First time ever."

There is a first time for everything, I suppose. But it's the last time that these Spartans — and Trice in particular — have worked so hard to avoid. This team's next loss will be the seniors' last, and Trice, named the East Regional's most outstanding player after another clutch performance Sunday, has made it clear he has no interest in letting this end.

"All season long, going back to last summer, we've been saying, 'Indy,' " said Trice, who was a perfect 10-for-10 from the line in Syracuse and is shooting 89.3 percent (25-for-28) in the tournament. "And now we're finally going. It feels great. …

"I can't put it into words. Just everything we've been through just this season alone. The ups and the downs, people doubting us, people that were in our corner leaving it. There came a point in the year where it was just us, just the people in our locker room and our program. … We stuck together. We could have quit. We could have rolled over and died, but we didn't. We just kept fighting."

Sunday was a fight, all right. But Trice is nothing if not a fighter — "Slighter build," his father Travis Sr. said, "but his heart is enormous" — and it showed again in this game. The senior co-captain led the Spartans with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists while playing a career-high 44 minutes. He sat for all of 56 seconds in the first half against a tenacious, trapping Louisville team, and he committed only two turnovers in the game.

Trice also played a critical role on defense in this one, hounding the Cardinals' Terry Rozier, who'd carried his team in the regional semifinal, while Michigan State harassed Louisville into 6-for-32 shooting after halftime.

"Travis was determined to make it to a Final Four," junior Denzel Valentine said. "Once you're determined, you can almost do anything."

Family affair

Anything, and everything. That was the Trice family motto this month, and Sunday's triumph capped a third consecutive weekend of basketball drama for them. They'd criss-crossed eight or nine states and logged a few thousand miles on the odometer creating their own unique brand of March Madness, as the Spartans' made Big Ten and NCAA tournament runs while Trice's father coached his younger brothers, D'Mitrik and Isaiah, in the Ohio state basketball playoffs.

It started with district title for Huber Heights Wayne, followed by an overnight trip to Chicago to catch Michigan State's game against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

It continued the following weekend with prep regionals in Cleveland and the NCAA tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trice's mother, Julie, flew down for the Spartans' NCAA tournament opener, flew home to catch Wayne's regional final win, then made the overnight trek back by car with the rest of the family, surprising Travis by showing up to watch Michigan State's upset win over Virginia.

Late last week, Travis Sr. told his eldest son the same thing he'd told him twice already. "Just make it to Sunday," he said, "and we'll be there." And they were, after D'Mitrik — a senior guard like his brother — scored a game-high 19 points Saturday night to lead Wayne to its first-ever Division I state title with a 65-57 victory over Westerville South in Columbus.

A frustrated older brother was following the game via "play-by-play texts" from his mother, and he managed to join in the postgame fun via FaceTime. But before long, his family was on the road again, making the 71/2-hour drive to Syracuse in a two-car convoy. They arrived shortly before 9 a.m., slept for a couple hours — "three to a bed," Julie said — then headed to the Carrier Dome to join the rest of a partisan MSU crowd.

"Has anybody ever had a weekend like this?" Travis Sr. said, laughing as Izzo thanked the fans — and his players — from the podium before the Spartans cut down the nets. "We're exhausted. But we can be exhausted later."

And here's the best news of all: Indianapolis is less than a 2-hour drive from home.