ATLANTA — Maybe it's time to put Michigan State alongside storied teams like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina.
The defending national champion Spartans took another step toward elitism Sunday, earning their third straight trip to the Final Four while denying John Chaney his first.
Even Michigan State's hard-to-please coach had to admit this was something special.
"To be in three straight Final Fours says something about consistency," Tom Izzo said after his Spartans held off Temple 69-62 to win the NCAA South Regional.
"Is our program looked at the same way as Kentucky and Duke and North Carolina? Maybe not. But we're trying to get there."
David Thomas scored 19 points, including a key 3-pointer with a minute to go, and Michigan State became just the ninth school to reach three straight Final Fours.
"I never thought we would do it three years in a row," senior Andre Hutson said. "You have to consider us an elite program now."
The Spartans held off repeated runs by the 11th-seeded Owls to earn a meeting in Minneapolis with either Illinois or Arizona.
The 69-year-old Chaney was coaching in a regional final for the fifth time, but he has never taken a team to the Final Four. The Owls (24-13) weren't expected to get this far, beating three higher-seeded teams before their amazing run ended.
"It's so difficult not being able to make that final step," Chaney said. "It was one missed rebound, one missed ball in our hands, but that was a tremendous team we played."
After tracking a last-ditch, but meaningless, shot all the way to
the rim, Chaney patted Izzo on the shoulder and walked off the floor alone.
"All praise and credit goes to him," Lynn Greer said. "No coach could have done what he did. To get seven guys — five who play 40 minutes — to come play every day, I don't think many could do that."
It always takes a powerhouse to keep Chaney out of the Final Four. In his five regional finals, the Owls have lost to a No. 2 seed and four No. 1s, including the Spartans (28-4).
Michigan State's streak of nine straight double-figure victories in the NCAA tournament ended, but the Spartans accomplished a goal that seemed improbable after losing stars Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson from its title team.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Izzo said. "I didn't think we would get back to the Final Four. But I think these guys wanted their own identity."
The Spartans were serenaded with chants of "One More Year! One More Year!" as they cut down the nets. The biggest cheers were reserved for Izzo, the former graduate assistant from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has the highest NCAA tournament winning percentage (.889) of any active coach.
"The pressure is not off," he said. "I want to win another championship."
Temple, whose band played the "Rocky" theme in the waning minutes in hopes of inspiring a miracle, fell behind 6-0 at the beginning and never caught up.
But the Spartans didn't seal the victory until Thomas hit a 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining for a 65-57 lead. Chaney admitted that his defensive plan didn't focus on the senior forward, averaging just 5 points a game.
"We've done this a thousand times where the wrong guy beats us," Chaney said.
Freshman Zach Randolph denied Temple with yeoman work on the offensive boards, grabbing two rebounds that set up key points for Michigan State down the stretch.
The nation's top rebounding team lived up to its billing with a 43-27 advantage over the Owls, who hit only 38 percent from the field and were often limited to one shot and out. Randolph had 14 rebounds and Hutson 10; no Temple player had more than eight.
Michigan State is only the third team to reach three straight Final Fours since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Kentucky was the last three-peater in 1996-98, winning two national titles with a title game loss sandwiched in between.
The Spartans lost in the semifinals two years ago before winning it all last season.
Temple, meanwhile, was trying to equal LSU in 1986 as the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship round. They won their first three tournament games by an average of more than 15 points, only to fall tantalizingly short of getting Chaney to the Final Four.