SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The traditional post-Elite Eight jubilation spread all over the Carrier Dome court, players grabbing hats proclaiming them regional champions, shrugging T-shirts over their jerseys, high-fives and fist bumps and chest bumps and hugs all around.
In a small pocket of three stood Travis Trice. Flanked on his right by his mother, Julie, and on his left by his father, Travis Sr., Travis' face crumbled first, the tears starting to spill as the family embraced. And then the tears gave way to full, heaving sobs, sobs so guttural that even bending over at the knees, as Travis first did, wasn't enough to absorb them. Slowly he sunk lower and lower, until he was squatting above the court, his parents on his knees beside him, rubbing his back to congratulate him and yet also to comfort him.
Finally a woman broke in, yelling, 'Travis, you need to go celebrate with your team,'' and almost reluctantly Trice stood up, stumbling in a daze as he climbed the makeshift stage to join his Michigan State Spartan teammates.
There are moments in every NCAA tournament, moments so pure of emotion and honesty they seem almost unreal. This one, in the minutes after the surprising Spartans topped Louisville in overtime, 76-70, to reach the Final Four, may have topped them all.
It came from a place so deep within that Travis struggled to put it into words, not just why he reacted the way he did, but what it all meant to him.
"I don't deserve it,'' Travis repeated over and over to his parents, in between sobs. "Oh yes he does,'' Julie later countered.
Most Michigan State teams are the embodiment of their coach, the feisty, windmill-tilting Tom Izzo. This team is Travis'. Counted out, underappreciated, rolling through a little bit of hell to get to basketball heaven, that's Travis. That's the Spartans.
They will head to Indianpolis as much on the backbone of determination as talent, riding on Travis' shoulders, a skinny, undersized guard who received no big-time recruiting love until right before his senior season.
Except, that is, from Izzo, a man who can appreciate the perils of being a little man, and who likes a kid with spunk. He got in with Travis early and stuck with him through four years of injuries, including a frightening and still undiagnosed condition in 2012 that left him sapped of strength. Izzo trusted his team's season to a player who, up until November, had averaged 22 minutes per game.
Travis rewarded his coach's faith with 17 points and five assists in the Elite Eight, a Most Outstanding Player trophy and a new streak. A year ago, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling became the first senior class under Izzo's direction to not make a Final Four.
Now Travis, along with Branden Dawson, has restarted the clock.
"He's a kid that's been through a lot,'' Izzo said. "All those injuries, waiting his turn, he deserves what he got.''
The debilitating brain injury was both the nadir and the turnaround for Travis. He didn't tell his family for weeks what was going on, that he couldn't summon the energy to get out of bed, that he was losing weight and losing it rapidly. Finally, reluctantly, he came clean. With doctors offering little in the way of advice, other than to say it was something with his brain, but nothing that they could detect, the Trice family started going to church, starting praying in earnest.
As strangely as the condition began, it disappeared, and Travis almost immediately became a man of deep faith.
He believed, and belief, as the Spartans will tell you, is a powerful tool.
"No one believed in us,'' junior Denzel Valentine said. "But we did.''
Julie Trice did, too. She started this season, creating her own little hashtags:
The last two are the sites, respectively, for the Ohio state basketball finals and the Final Four.
Julie believed her husband, head coach of the Wayne High School Warriors in Huber Heights, Ohio, and other son, D'Mitrik, star player for the Warriors, could get to the first and Travis to the second.
"I said that on the first day of the season,'' she said.
There was no reason to believe that. Wayne had never won a state championship, was picked 10th in its division, and the Spartans lost two draft picks from last season's team.
And then it all started to happen, started almost literally at the same time. Three weekends ago, Michigan State went to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament while Wayne played for the district title.
Julie and Travis Sr. commuted between the two. Wayne won the districts, the Spartans pushed Wisconsin to the brink in the title game.
Then last weekend, the Warriors moved on to the regionals and Michigan State to the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
On Friday, Julie watched the Spartans beat Georgia in Charlotte, hopped a plane the next morning, getting home in time to see her husband and other boy win the districts.
That night, or rather early Sunday morning, father and mother hopped in the car and started driving. Eight hours later they arrived in Charlotte, grabbed two quick hours of sleep and saw Michigan State upset Virginia.
This weekend proved a little more difficult. Both D'Mitrik and Travis played on Friday, D'Mitrik in a state semifinal, Travis in the Sweet 16.
"That's a mama's worst decision,'' Julie said.
But Wayne had never played for a state championship before -- Travis, the school's all-time leading scorer, was stopped in the district finals -- and so Julie decided to hang home for the Friday-Saturday state combo games, entrusting Travis to give her something to do on Sunday.
"We told Travis to take care of Friday and we would see him on Sunday,'' Travis Sr. said.
A nervous Travis spent Saturday night awaiting score updates from his mother, so anxious he could barely eat the team meal.
"I was more nervous for him than me,'' he said.
Wayne won its first state title, beating Westerville 65-57, with D'Mitrik scoring 19 points.
By 1 a.m., Travis Sr., Julie and D'Mitrik, trailed in another car by more family, started the convoy to Syracuse. They stopped and switched drivers along the way, arriving at 8:30 Sunday morning.
"I had reserved a hotel, so we were all horizontal, three to a bed,'' Julie said.
Nine hours later, there they were on the court, surrounding a sobbing Travis.
"Has anybody ever had a weekend like this?" Travis, Sr. asked.
He was grinning as he spoke, Julie nearby hugging everybody including reporters. Travis by then was on the stage, hanging in the back of his pack of teammates. He hadn't even bothered to grab the championship T-shirt and hat combo, standing with his hands resting on his head, clad only in his uniform.
Eventually the public address announcer got around to introducing the all-regional team, announcing last that Travis was the MOP.
"He won MVP?" Travis Sr. said, shaking his head. "My word.''
It is not over yet, at least not for the Spartans.
"But the best news,'' Julie said, grinning, "Indy is only an hour and a half away.''