Magic on demand Laettner delivers


March 29, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Inevitably, someone will want to analyze the game and the moment and tell how it happened and why it happened.

This once, it's enough that it did happen.

It's enough that a game that took us to whatever exists beyond heart-stopping ends with a play and a player to die for.

It was a play that couldn't happen -- but did. That's the magic, isn't it? That's what keeps us coming. There are 2.1 seconds left in overtime and Duke, the defending national champion, is down a point to a renascent Kentucky team, and it's all over. Except somehow it isn't.

That's because Christian Laettner is there. He is standing just behind his own foul line, about 75 feet from where Grant Hill zTC stands on the end line. Hill lets fly with a baseball pass. Laettner catches. That's the hard part. He dribbles once, he spins, he jumps between and over two defenders and he shoots from 16 and the ball drops and Duke wins, 104-103 -- so we now have a signature moment to define a player who was already the all-time NCAA tournament scorer. What I'm trying to say is this was Bill Walton (21 of 22 against Memphis State) 19 years later.

Of course, he made the shot. Laettner made them all last night. He made 10 of 10 shots from the field -- one a three-pointer -- and 10 of 10 from the foul line. He made the last one and he raced down the court, his arms extended, as if to hug the sky.

His teammates finally caught him and hugged him in the traditional post-game mob scene, but this time maybe to see if he was real. Unreal or not, he was perfect.

Laettner was running to catch his breath because his breath was taken away. Everyone's was. Later, he would say he never saw the shot go in. He didn't have to. The Spectrum crowd told him everything he needed to know.

Mike Krzyzewski didn't see the ball go in, either. He didn't have to, either. "I've seen him shoot it so many times," Krzyzewski said.

He had seen it two years ago in another East Regional final, when Laettner hit a shot at the buzzer to beat Connecticut in overtime. That was a good moment. It was a special moment. It was nothing like this moment.

Can we talk about this game? What if we just say it's the best one you ever hoped to see? Here's how Coach K saw it: "If you're a person who loves the game for the game itself, you just hope you're a part of a game like this someday.

"You don't have enough words to write about how many good players there were tonight, how many pressure threes. . . . I thank God I was part of it."

Yeah, the game was that good. Where do you start in describing it? How about three seconds before it ended? That was when Sean Woods of Kentucky drove past Bobby Hurley into the lane, only to be picked up by Laettner. You remember Laettner. Woods, who is 6 feet 2, pushed the ball over the arms of 6-11 Laettner, off the backboard and into the basket.

That was a pretty good moment, too.

Was it better than the shot Laettner made with the score tied at 98? With five seconds left on the shot clock, Hill inbounded the ball from the left sideline into Laettner, who shot from eight feet in something close to desperation. The ball hit near the bottom of the backboard and simply crept up into the basket.

Laettner scored the last eight points in overtime. You talk about big-time players and big-time plays, and you can put Laettner right there. One thing, Kentucky answered every time until there was no time left.

You probably know it wasn't supposed to get this far. Kentucky, a decided underdog, was losing by nine points with seven minutes to play in regulation. The Wildcats, who had pressured Duke, a team you're not supposed to be able to pressure, turned it up a notch in the end. And when they'd get the ball back, they'd hit three-pointer after brain-numbing three-pointer to complement the star-making play of Jamal Mashburn.

For Duke, now headed to a fifth consecutive Final Four, it was a matter of holding on. But what could the Blue Devils hold on to?

Yes, the Blue Devils are a team of many parts. Hurley stepped up in the second half, just as Hill had in the first. But this is Laettner's team. He didn't need this game to prove that. He didn't need a miracle to make his case.

But now we have the miracle ending, and that's how we can remember him. He was saying the other day that being the No. 1 NCAA scorer meant only that he had played in more games than anyone else. Not that he was apologizing. He was explaining that he wasn't Oscar Robertson.

Records don't mean as much as moments, anyway. Not as much as certain moments. This was such a moment. I hope you saw it.

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