IN THE regional finals of the 2005 NCAA tournament, with Kentucky down 75-72 to Michigan State and one second left in regulation, Wildcats guard Patrick Sparks threw up an off-balance three-pointer. The ball bounced five times on the rim, hung on the edge and then fell in. A jubilant Sparks ran toward the CBS broadcast table and yelled, "Take that!" at analyst Billy Packer, who had been critical of him in a game earlier that season.
What followed was the longest 7 1/2 minutes of Sparks's life, as referees reviewed the play to make sure his size 11 right sneaker had been outside the white line of the arc when he launched the ball. Sparks's foot was freeze-framed from every angle before the shot was ruled a three. "I've gotten the details of the play from everyone I see," he says. "It's anywhere from 'There was no doubt it was a three' to 'It was the closest to the line I've ever seen' to 'Good thing you had blue-and-white shoes on.'"
Though the call went Sparks's way, overtime did not. He missed two key outside shots in the two extra periods as Kentucky fell 94-88 and missed out on its first trip to the Final Four since 1998. Nevertheless Sparks, who grew up in tiny Central City, Ky., dreaming of playing for the Wildcats, had cemented his place in Kentucky basketball lore.
When the Wildcats kick off the season--and a yearlong celebration marking 30 years of basketball at Rupp Arena--this Friday, Sparks will be treated like a hero. The 6-foot senior is Kentucky's leading returning scorer (he averaged 11 points per game last season) and its top marksman (he was 37.6% from three-point range). But while fans in Lexington will long talk of his clutch trey against the Spartans, Sparks is ready to move on. "We came so close last year," he says. "Now I want to build on those experiences."