03/28/2005 1:00AM

Wild hoops action had crowd on edge


Words can't do justice to the excitement of Saturday and Sunday's regional finals in the .

A lot of people say that nothing compares with the first two days of the tournament, when 16 games are played on each day, but the two games apiece on Saturday and Sunday came pretty close. All four games were in doubt until the end, with a record three going to overtime.

College basketball fans throughout the country were left on the edge of their seats, but the tension was magnified for those with money on the games. Here in Las Vegas, only the ones who could find a seat in the city's sports books were on the edge of them. The rest had to sweat out their bets while on their feet. It was a long time to stand around, but it was worth it. Cheers went back and forth as games teetered from one side of the point spread to the other over and over again.

Louisville vs. West Virginia

Saturday's first game had Louisville favored by between 8 and 8 1/2 points at most books. Cardinal backers looked like sure losers as West Virginia was red-hot from 3-point range and built a 20-point lead in the first half and led 40-27 at halftime, but Louisville staged a miraculous comeback to force overtime.

In the extra period, Louisville dominated and actually led by a spread-covering 9 points despite missing seven - count 'em, seven - free throws in the final 1:21. The most exciting point-spread moment came with the Cardinals leading by 8 with 20 seconds left, when they stole the ball and Brandon Jenkins had a breakaway dunk - and missed it! Louisville got the rebound and dribbled out the clock for the 93-85 victory, which was a push based on the closing line at the Stardust.

Illinois vs. Arizona

Saturday's nightcap was just as thrilling, as No. 1 ranked Illinois, favored by 5 points, trailed Arizona by 15 with four minutes remaining. Illinois's comeback topped Louisville's, and this game also went to overtime. Just like Louisville, Illinois gave its backers a thrill by building a spread-covering 6-point lead at 90-84 before Arizona's Hassan Adams scored five points down the stretch. Adams missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that allowed Illinois to escape with a 90-89 non-covering win.

North Carolina vs. Wisconsin

Sunday's first game had North Carolina open as an 11-point favorite and close at 9 1/2. Again, underdog bettors were clearly on the right side as a gritty Wisconsin team stayed with the Tar Heels throughout. But there was always the sense that the game could be broken open at any time, so bettors on both sides were glued to the action. In the end, North Carolina did just enough to pull away for an 88-82 non-covering victory.

Michigan St. vs. Kentucky

As great as the three preceding games were, this one somehow topped them all for drama and point-spread uncertainty. And it started before the game ever started.

Kentucky, as the No. 2 seed in the Austin Regional, opened as a short 1-point favorite. But bettors weren't fooled, and the money flowed in on Michigan St., closing with the Spartans favored by 1 1/2. The money was again on the right side, as Michigan St. led by 8 points with 5:25 remaining, but Kentucky came with the inevitable (at least for this weekend) comeback.

The moment that defined the weekend was when, trailing by 3 points, the Wildcats put up three 3-point attempts in the final 12 seconds, with Patrick Sparks's shot tying the game at the buzzer after bouncing all over the rim. Then everyone - especially those who laid 1 1/2 with Michigan St. and would have lost if the Spartans only won by 1 - had to wait for the referees to review the tape to see if Sparks's foot was on the line. With the scored tied again at the end of the first overtime, Kentucky was unable to get a shot off, to the chagrin of its backers. Michigan St. finally prevailed 94-88 in the second overtime for a spread-covering win.

In all, the favorites actually won all four games, but went 1-2-1 against the spread. For the tournament, dogs hold a slight edge at 31-28-2.

As one would expect with the frenetic pace of all four regional finals, they all went over their respective totals (by a whopping average of 35.1 points). Before the weekend, the under was the way to bet and still holds a 33-28 edge through four rounds.

Illinois, North Carolina favored again

After Saturday's dramatics, oddsmakers opened Illinois as a 2-point favorite over Louisville in this Saturday's first Final Four matchup. The early money came on the Illini, and as of noon Monday the line appeared to have settled at 2 1/2. The total opened at 143 1/2 and by Sunday had been bet up to 146 1/2.

In the other national semifinal, North Carolina opened as a 5 1/2-point choice over Michigan St., but in this case the money showed on the underdog and the line was a solid 5 by Monday. The total opened at 158 1/2 and was adjusted to 157 1/2 by Monday.

Horse handicapping contest update

The Championship at the Orleans tournament, with a $500 entry fee, runs Thursday through Saturday. Because of that, the weekly $5 and $10 contests held on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Coast Casinos will not be held. They will resume next week.

While the Coast contests take a hiatus, the Real Live Thursdays contest makes its debut at Bally's this week. The entry fee is $100, with an additional $300 live bankroll required. Players then make 10 live $30 wagers - limited to win, place, show, quinella, exacta, and trifecta - at contest tracks.

This weekly contest runs through July 28 with each Thursday's winner qualifying for a tournament on Aug. 4 in which the top four finishers will qualify for that weekend's (Aug. 5-6) Summer Stakes.

As for tournaments the rest of the spring, Harrah's Reno Handicapping Tournament ($500 entry fee) takes place April 13-15, Bally's Moolah ($5,000 entry fee) is the following week on April 22-23, and the Las Vegas Hilton's Pick the Ponies ($500 entry fee) is May 4-6.

A word to the wise: The Hilton officially has set the early-bird deadline at 5 p.m. on April 18. Registrants before that date have to pay only $400 to enter. The field is limited to 200, and spots will fill up fast.