DAVE SKRETTA,AP Sports Writer
The regional finals are set after two days of games that separated the contenders from the pretenders, the upstarts from the just starting to get serious.
It will be fifth-seeded Michigan State, playing without star guard Kalin Lucas, taking on sixth-seeded Tennessee in Houston. In the other regional final from that half of the bracket, Butler puts its 23-game winning streak on the line against Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente and second-seeded Kansas State.
Top-seeded Kentucky and its roster of phenomenal freshmen will play second-seeded West Virginia in the East Regional, the only corner of the bracket where the two teams favored to keep playing have done just that. The other top seed still alive, Duke, will face third-seeded Baylor in Houston for the right to play in the Final Four in Indianapolis.
The field of 65 has been whittled to eight, and as the number of teams still lacing up the sneakers keeps getting smaller, the pressure keeps building.
What teams will be able to handle it? The weekend will write that story.
Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer rescued Duke in the second half, heating up from the field after a miserable first 20 minutes and lifting the top-seeded Blue Devils to a 70-57 victory over fourth-seeded Purdue in the South Regional.
Kyle Singler also had a big game for the Blue Devils, but it's not a surprise. Those three have led the Atlantic Coast Conference champions all season.
It could be argued that Purdue lost the game when Robbie Hummel tore his ACL late in the season, because the Boilermakers never seemed to be the same team. That doesn't mean they can't be proud of the showing they made in the NCAA tournament, beating Siena in the opening round and then outlasting Texas A&M in a rousing second-round matchup last weekend.
The Blue Devils, in their first regional final since 2004, will play third-seeded Baylor on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
Chris Allen managed a key putback with about 30 seconds left, and Michigan State used stellar defense and gritty determination down the stretch to fend off ninth-seeded Northern Iowa 59-52 in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
The Spartans put a somber ending on a dream run for the Panthers, who gave the NCAA tournament plenty of thrills with their wins over UNLV and top-seeded Kansas. But it will be Michigan State playing for a spot in the Final Four, against No. 6 seed Tennessee on Sunday.
After losing star guard Kalin Lucas to a ruptured Achilles' tendon in a second-round win over Maryland, many people wondered if the Spartans would crumble. Korie Lucious came through with several big shots, and Durrell Summers had another big game in the NCAA tournament.
Northern Iowa didn't manage a field goal in the final 10 minutes, but was able to stay within striking distance from the foul line and thanks to its own excellent defense.
The tournament now lacks any real miracle teams, after Saint Mary's lost earlier in the night to Baylor. The best anybody can point to is Horizon League heavyweight Butler, but even the Bulldogs are a No. 5 seed and many folks anticipated them making a deep run.
Korie Lucious is making Kalin Lucas proud, with a nifty spin move at the foul line and a fadeaway jumper that has given Michigan State a four-point lead with about 90 seconds left.
Free throws have been a thorn for Northern Iowa: Adam Koch, an 84-percent shooter, just missed a pair, and 87-percent shooter Ali Farokhmanesh has missed three of them.
The heavily Northern Iowa crowd is on its feet at the Edward Jones Dome, not far from the Scottrade Center, where the Panthers won the Missouri Valley tournament a few weeks ago.
Adam Koch's two foul shots have tied the game 51-all with 2½ minutes left against Michigan State in another thriller from the Midwest Regional.
The lead is back to nine for Duke, its biggest of the night, after a flurry from Nolan Smith. His jumper started the spurt, he made another jumper moments later, then took an assist from Jon Scheyer and made a 3-pointer with 8:04 left.
Smith had been 2 of 12 from the field before hitting three straight shots.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson was becoming frustrated after the Panthers ran plays in the wrong direction on consecutive possessions.
He's probably not too happy about Michigan State getting offensive rebounds, either.
The Panthers forced a turnover and had a chance to take the lead, but Johnny Moran bricked a 3-pointer off the backboard. Moments later he limped off the floor, although it's unclear exactly what he did to his foot or ankle.
Duke used a 7-0 run to take a 42-35 lead, but the Boilermakers are nothing if not resilient, and they're starting to make a comeback.
JaJuan Johnson's breakaway jam has trimmed the lead back within three.
Remember, Purdue trailed in the second half in the opening round against Siena, then came from 11 down against Texas A&M to reach the regional semifinals. Ever since losing star guard Robbie Hummel, the men in black have been all about proving people wrong.
Would there be a more fitting way to end another round in the NCAA tournament than both games — Northern Iowa-Michigan State and Duke-Purdue — tied at the exact same moment in the second half? That was the case moments ago.
The tournament has been filled with close calls and last-second shots, and both of these games appear headed in that direction. Duke has edged ahead in Houston, while Northern Iowa was eked out a two-point lead over the Spartans in St. Louis.
Time keeps melting away in St. Louis, where Northern Iowa and Michigan State have basically played to a stalemate. One team will go a five- or six-point flurry, then the other answers.
The Panthers might have an advantage if the game remains close in the closing minutes, simply from an experience standpoint. Their plodding pace means most of their games are close, and they don't get rattled easily in the closing minutes of ballgames.
Just ask Kansas. Or UNLV.
The Spartans also could be sorely missing Kalin Lucas in the closing minutes, for his deft ballhandling, big-shot mentality and good free throw numbers.
Duke has built a five-point lead on the strength of Jon Scheyer's first field goal in his last 52 minutes of playing time, an open 3-pointer from the wing that forced Purdue coach Matt Painter to call a timeout.
If Scheyer begins to heat up for the Blue Devils, and JaJuan Johnson doesn't get some help, it could be a long second half for Purdue.
The second half getting under way in Houston, where JaJuan Johnson has 13 of the Boilermakers' 23 points. He'll need somebody to help him out if fourth-seeded Purdue wants to knock off top-seeded Duke.
The abysmal offensive performance by Purdue shouldn't be surprising.
The Boilermakers mustered 16 second-half points in their first game after Robbie Hummel went down with a blown out ACL, a 53-44 loss to Michigan State. They won their next three, then scored only 11 in the first half of a 69-42 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State has scored on its first six possessions of the second half to edge ahead of Northern Iowa. Neither team has gone on a big run, and the team that does might well be the team that finds itself ahead at the end.
One of the things that the Spartans are doing well is moving the ball. Of their 12 field goals, all but one has come off an assist.
Those are numbers that make an old-school coach like Tom Izzo smile.
Ali Farokhmanesh doesn't need an inch.
After the Spartans' Durrell Summers hit a tough 3-pointer from the corner, the Northern Iowa guard hit a deep 3-pointer from the wing — only his second field goal of the game.
Michigan State is starting to get hot, though, with Delvon Roe's impressive putback jam and another bucket moments later that knotted the score 34-all with about 17½ minutes left.
Summers has a game-high 14 points, including a trio of 3-pointers.
Halftime has mercifully come in Houston, where top-seeded Duke leads Purdue 24-23 in a game with about as much finesse as a lumberjack driving a dump truck.
The two teams have combined to go 15 of 55 from the field, including a dreadful 3 for 15 from beyond the arc and 15 turnovers.
The unsightly first half can be boiled down to one play with about 10 seconds left.
Duke's Kyle Singler picked off a silly pass by the Boilermakers, appeared to be heading in for a dunk, then got the ball stuffed by a defender racing in from behind — and the ball wedged between the rim and the backboard.
That stuff is only supposed to happen in cartoons.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski might want to remind his club that a loss ends its season.
The Blue Devils have gone more than 8 minutes without a field goal, and the Boilermakers have used a 9-2 run to take a 19-17 lead late in the first half.
It's not like everything has been chipper for the Boilermakers. Keaton Grant just bricked a 3-pointer off the backboard, the team's fourth open look that hasn't hit iron, and the team in black is shooting at a 26.1-percent clip. Purdue is also 0 for 6 from beyond the arc.
But even those numbers look good to Duke right now. Jon Scheyer is 0 for 5 from the field, Nolan Smith is 1 for 7 and the Blue Devils are 4 for 22 (18.2 percent) as a team. They've also coughed it up 10 times in the first half to just two turnovers for the Boilermakers.
Kwadzo Ahelegbe knocked down an outside jumper just before the halftime buzzer, giving Northern Iowa 29-22 lead over Michigan State at the break.
All the more impressive considering star guard Ali Farokhmanesh has one field goal.
The Panthers are doing it with defense, holding Michigan State to one field goal over the final 9:18 of the first half. The Spartans are just 7 of 22 from the field (31.8 percent) and have been outrebounded by the scrappy Missouri Valley champions.
Jordan Eglseder has been a mismatch inside, with six points and a commanding presence in the paint. Adam Koch led the way with nine first-half points for Northern Iowa.
How's this for athletic: Northern Iowa's 7-foot, 280-pound center Jordan Eglseder just ran down the floor to swat an alley-oop attempt off the backboard.
The Panthers are getting the grinding game they want, leading 27-22 with 47 seconds left in the first half. One mid-major is already in the regional finals in Butler, and Northern Iowa is trying to join the Bulldogs this weekend.
Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas is on the bench in warmups, his left leg in a walking boot. Last year's Big Ten player of the year ruptured his Achilles' tendon in the second round against Maryland, a blow made even worse because Northern Iowa has good guards.
Besides sharpshooter Ali Farokhmanesh, Adam Koch has been hitting everything he throws toward the rim, and Kwadzo Ahelegbe is also perfect from the field.
The Panthers lead 25-20 with about 3½ minutes left in the first half.
Some interesting numbers in the box score from Reliant Stadium. Duke has turned the ball over six times while Purdue has turned it over once, while the Blue Devils have 14 rebounds and the Boilermakers just six.
Nothing else about the game is remotely interesting.
Duke leads the snooze-fest 13-10 with about 9 minutes left, although Purdue's Patrick Bade just picked up his third foul. That could make things a little more intriguing.
Perhaps the Boilermakers and Blue Devils got together before the game and outlined their own set of rules, a bit like a school yard game. You know, first one to 20 points wins?
Purdue went 6 minutes without making a field goal, Duke has been just as terrible on offense, and the two teams combined to go 5 of 24 from the field.
Then again, maybe 20 points will be a stretch for both of these guys.
How nice is Michigan State coach Tom Izzo? He just told one of the officials "excuse me" for getting in the way along the sideline.
Sharing must go along with that polite demeanor, because his Spartans have six assists on their first six field goals. They lead 16-14 with about 9 minutes left in the first half.
Matt Painter better get back to fundamentals during the first media timeout — as in, shots that don't hit the iron don't have much of a chance of going in.
His Boilermakers have more airballs (3) than field goals (2) in the first 5 minutes against top-seeded Duke, and are fortunate to be only trailing 6-4. That's because the Blue Devils have been just as bad on offense, with both teams hitting two of their first nine shots.
Egads. These guys are playing for a spot in the final eight?
Ali Farokhmanesh was the guy who hit the key 3-pointer, made the big-time free throws, earned the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.
His running mate Adam Koch must have been a little bit jealous.
The Northern Iowa guard started 4 for 4 from the field and has nine early points, as the Panthers jumped out to a quick lead over Michigan State. Every point is critical in a game involving the Panthers, who would prefer the final score to resemble a football game.
Which makes sense. They play sort of like a football team.
Here's what qualifies as a slump for a program like Duke: It hasn't been to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament since 2004.
Talk about great expectations.
The school with the best all-time winning percentage in the NCAA tournament will try to break its slide against fourth-seeded Purdue, a team that most pundits didn't expect to escape the first round versus Siena, much less make it to Houston.
Although the Blue Devils are the bluebloods, Purdue has never been to the Final Four since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Boilermakers are back in the regional semifinals for the second straight year, but haven't advanced to the round of eight since 2000.
Northern Iowa's linebacker of a sixth man Lucas O'Rear has a black brace on his left wrist that looks like the tape underneath a boxing glove.
The way he plays, don't be surprised if it isn't.
The physical Panthers defense is already causing problems for Michigan State, which went the first 3-plus minutes without scoring. Plenty of UNI fans have made the trip south from Cedar Falls to St. Louis, and they were loving the early 7-0 lead.
How about this for a cosmic joke: Thirty-one years to the day after Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State for the national championship, the Spartans are playing another Missouri Valley team in a regional semifinal.
Oh, and Johnson is on hand to see the game.
Rather than Indiana State, though, it will be giant-killer Northern Iowa taking on fifth-seeded Michigan State. The winner gets a date with sixth-seeded Tennessee on Saturday.
The Panthers and March miracle-worker Ali Farokhmanesh may be new to most fans' radar, but they have quite the postseason pedigree. They made three straight NCAA tournament appearances beginning in 2004, then got back to the tournament last season, before the charmed run this year that includes a victory against overall No. 1 seed Kansas.
Now they'll try to knock off a coach and team that is in the round of 16 for the third consecutive year and the ninth time in 13 seasons, despite a rash of injuries.
Among them was a season-ending Achilles' injury to star Kalin Lucas in a dramatic victory over Maryland that allowed the Spartans to advance to St. Louis. Korie Lucious will be called on to help replace the contributions from Michigan State's leading scorer.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.