• Sal Maiorana

The greatest college basketball game ever - Laettner and Duke beat Kentucky

PHILADELPHIA (March 28, 1992) - Christian Laettner claimed he never saw the ball drop through the basket.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he didn’t see it either.

Not that they needed to, because the celebration that ensued in the bedlam-filled seconds after Laettner’s 17-foot buzzer-beating jumper bottomed out told them all they needed to know: Duke had beaten Kentucky in overtime, 104-103, to win the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, securing its fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four and its sixth in seven years.

“I’ve seen Christian shoot so much that when I saw the arc, I knew it was in,’’ Krzyzewski said.

Added Laettner: “After I shot it I didn’t see it go in, but I knew it went in. There can’t be a better feeling than this.’’

Neither man saw the historic shot finish its glorious journey, but what they did see was one of the greatest college basketball games ever played.

“I’m not sure I can provide adjectives to fit this basketball game,’’ Krzyzewski said. “It’s incredible. I think we’ve all been a part of one of the great games ever. You hope someday you’re a part of something like this. I just thank God I was a part of it.’’

Kentucky had taken a 103-102 lead with 2.1 seconds left to play when Sean Woods nailed a 13-foot jumper over Laettner’s outstretched arm. Duke immediately called timeout, which meant the Blue Devils would have to inbound the ball from under their own basket.

In the Duke huddle, Krzyzewski told his players: “First of all, we’re going to get a good shot, and we’re going to win, OK?’’

Point guard Bobby Hurley sat on the bench looking at his coach and thinking to himself, ‘Are you kidding?’

“Coach told us we were going to win,’’ Hurley recalled. “I doubted him a little. I’d better start believing him. We ran the play exactly the way (coach) designed it. He wanted Grant (Hill) to throw the ball to Christian somewhere near the free-throw line and for him to hit the shot.’’

A month earlier the Blue Devils faced a situation similar to this at Wake Forest, but Hill’s court-length pass was off target and Laettner stepped out of bounds after he caught it, never getting a shot away.

“I’m not going to step out this time,’’ Laettner told Hill in the huddle.

When the teams returned to the floor, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino decided not to put a man on Hill, opting instead to have an extra defender playing center field at the other end.

“We had the pass covered well,’’ Pitino said. “We had a small team in (because Jamal Mashburn and Gimel Martinez had fouled out), so we didn’t guard the ball over the top.’’

With a clear view, Hill heaved a Joe Montana spiral and Laettner, doing his best Jerry Rice impression, skied for the ball and came down with it cleanly. The clock began to tick, but Laettner had the presence of mind to not just chuck it up. He took one dribble, faked left, turned to his right,and released the shot with the horn two-tenths of a second away from sounding.

“I can’t believe it happened to me twice in a career,’’ Laettner said. As a sophomore in 1990, his 15-foot jumper with 1.6 seconds remaining gave Duke a 79-78 victory in the East Regional final at the Meadowlands over Connecticut.

“Grant, first, had to throw a perfect pass,” Laettner continued. “And I was concentrating on catching it. This seemed to take a lot longer than the Connecticut shot. I had a lot of thought this time.’’

It was Laettner’s 20th shot attempt of the game. It was his 20th success. He went 10-for-10 from the floor and 10-for-10 from the foul line for 31 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds.

Kentucky had battled back from a 67-55 deficit with 11:08 left in regulation with Woods and Mashburn leading the way. They had combined to assist on four straight baskets within 1:03 to cut the margin to 67-63, and Woods’ three-pointer with 5:25 left tied the game at 81.

With four minutes left in the overtime Kentucky took a 96-93 lead when John Pelphrey drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key. Seconds later, Pelphrey stepped into the path of Brian Davis, drew a charge, and Davis went to the sidelines cursing his disqualifying fifth foul.

With 2:42 left, Hill made a huge play. Hurley missed a three-pointer, but Hill tracked down the rebound and sent it back out to Hurley for another chance. This time, the senior point guard didn’t miss and the game was tied.

“I think one of the crucial parts of the game was when we gave Hurley that three-point shot,’’ Pitino said. “That hurt us more than any other play because we had a three-point lead. It probably would have been over at that point (had Hurley not connected).’’

Pelphrey answered by driving through traffic in the lane to score, but with 1:53 remaining, Laettner drew Mashburn’s fourth personal foul and made both shots to create a 98-98 draw. The score stayed that way until 31.5 seconds remained when Laettner hit an eight-foot jumper over Mashburn as the 45-second shot clock was winding down.

Rather than call timeout, the Wildcats raced up the floor, Mashburn took a pass from Pelphrey, drove the left baseline and scored while Antonio Lang was fouling him. Mashburn completed the three-point play with 19.6 ticks left to give Kentucky a 101-100 lead.

After the free throw, Pitino called time to set up Kentucky’s defense, but his ploy was rendered useless when Mashburn fouled Laettner with 14.1 left. Mashburn had fouled out, and Laettner made both shots to put Duke back in the lead.

Kentucky got the ball to midcourt and called timeout with 7.8 left to devise a game-winning play. This time, everything worked perfectly. Woods faked left, then drove past Hurley and soared above Laettner to score what he thought was the winning basket.

“I thought that was the game, no doubt,’’ Woods said. “But they hit a lucky shot and they won.’’

The top-ranked Blue Devils had won some wild games in the past, but this was one for the ages.

“All I could say for 10 minutes after the game was, ‘This is unbelievable; this is unbelievable,’’’ Hurley said. “I asked (associate coach) Pete Gaudet if I were alive or in a dream. He smacked me up side my head and said, ‘You’re alive.’’’

The following weekend, Duke went on to beat Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, 81-78, in the national semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. And two nights later, the Blue Devils became the first team since UCLA in 1973 to successfully defend their championship, blowing out Michigan and its Fab Five lineup, 71-51.