TUCSON, Ariz. -- Before tackling Michigan State yesterday, Utah's rotund coach Rick Majerus said jokingly: "I don't know how we're going to stop the Spartans. I'm going to have to eat on it."
The Spartans almost gave Majerus an ulcer, forcing two overtimes with stirring comebacks before the Utes survived, 85-84, to advance to the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament West Regional.
"It's probably the best game I've been involved with in my life," Majerus said on a more serious note after the game. "I've never seen so many twists and turns. We missed some key foul shots, but we just played through it."
Senior center Walter Watts, who struggled with his shooting all afternoon, provided the winning margin by hitting one of two free throws with six seconds left in the second overtime.
Michigan State's All-America guard Steve Smith, who had wo the first-round game against Wisconsin-Green Bay with a last-second shot, made a three-pointer with three seconds left. But the Spartans (19-11) were out of timeouts and the Utes (30-3) let the final seconds tick away by holding the ball out of bounds.
"We feel we've been underrated all year. This kind of validate the season," Majerus said. "Thirty wins is a lot of wins."
The victory sends Utah to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1983. The fourth-seeded Utes will play UNLV on Thursday in Seattle.
The first half was loosely played, with both teams having trouble getting into their offense.
Utah used the versatility of Josh Grant, who can score from al over the court, to build a 10-4 lead.
Forward Matt Steigenga scored three straight baskets to pull th Spartans into a 10-10 tie.
It remained close as Grant carried the Utes' attack and th Spartans used their speed to beat Utah down the court.
A breakaway layup by Mark Montgomery gave Michigan State a 20-17 lead with nine minutes left in the half. But it was five minutes before the Spartans scored again. In the meantime, Utah moved ahead by 26-20 with 265-pound Walter Watts using his weight to score inside.
But then it was the Utes' turn to turn cold. Smith closed the hal with a pair of driving layups to give the Spartans a 33-29 cushion. Grant had 15 points and five rebounds at the break.
Smith and Steigenga each had eight for the Spartans.
Utah seemingly had it tucked away, leading, 64-60, with 24 seconds left in regulation.
But the Spartans forced the first overtime by capitalizing on a bizarre four-point play.
Steigenga, who earlier had missed an uncontested layup, thi time weaved himself through the Utah defense for a coast-to-coast basket. The Utes were wise not to foul Steigenga, but Byron Wilson was called for holding Smith underneath the basket.
Smith converted the two pressure free throws to tie it. Uta missed a last-second shot, and the game went into overtime.
The Utes also led through most of the first overtime and wer ahead, 75-73, with 26 seconds remaining after Soto hit two foul shots.
With six seconds remaining, Spartans center Mike Peplowsk was fouled after getting an offensive rebound. He missed the first and then banged the second off the right side. But reserve forward Jon Zulauf muscled his way to grab the rebound and converted to tie at the buzzer.
There were two more ties in the second regulation before NTC basket by guard Tyrone Tate and two free throws by Soto gave Utah an 83-79 cushion.
The Spartans refused to quit. Trailing by 84-81, they had chance to tie it again , but guard Andy Penick missed a three-point shot.
Utah center Walter Watts then made his critical free throw with
10 seconds left to make it 85-81, just enough to withstand Smith's three-point shot. Utah let the last three seconds expire by holding the ball out of bounds.