Was it the greatest college basketball game ever played?
That was the question being asked moments after Christian Laettner's 16-foot jump shot beat the overtime buzzer and enabled Duke to beat Kentucky, 104-103, in the NCAA East Regional final Saturday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
The shot by Laettner, which came after he caught a 75-foot inbounds pass from Grant Hill, followed an even more sensational 14-footer by Wildcats guard Sean Woods with 2.2 seconds to play. Woods drove around Bobby Hurley and threw in a one-handed bank shot over Laettner.
So, did this game, which put Duke (32-2) into its fifth straight Final Four, eclipse the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final between North Carolina State and Maryland, won in overtime by the soon-to-be national champion Wolfpack, 103-100?
"As far as this game being well-played all the way through, I don't think it was, but because of the last two shots and what was at stake for Duke, I think it is [the greatest]," said Len Elmore, who played for the Terps in the 1974 game and was the CBS television analyst for Saturday night's game. "That's what sets this game apart."
Said Billy Packer, who was the analyst on the 1974 game and watched this one in Lexington, Ky., where he worked yesterday's Southeast Regional final for CBS: "The other one had great plays, more spectacular play throughout the game, but this one had more drama. Because of what was on the line and the Duke story, this one was probably better."
There were other questions that came out of Saturday night's game: Why did Kentucky coach Rick Pitino not have someone guard Hill on the inbounds pass, if only to prevent the Duke forward from getting a clear line of vision? And how did Laettner get to the ball without the slightest obstacle?
Pitino, who admitted being "in a fog" minutes after the game ended, seemed confused about his last-second strategy. He first said that his team only guards the inbounds pass if it's along the sideline, not the baseline, then reversed himself.
Instead of second-guessing himself, Pitino chose to praise Laettner.
"He made a very tough shot with a man on him," said Pitino. "Two seconds is a long time. But he's a great player and he made the shot, so we have to give him his credit."
Said Elmore: "I felt bad for Rick, because he's going to roll it around in his head as to why he never put a guy on the ball."
But there remains Laettner's being able to catch the ball. He didn't use his 83 inches of height to jump over anybody or his 250 pounds of weight to muscle any of the Wildcats off the ball. He just ran from the low post to the high post with a simple head fake.
With John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, both 6-7, behind him, Laettner caught the long pass from Hill. He dribbled once, faked twice, turned and shot his way into college basketball lore. Though he had made a shot under the similar circumstances to beat Connecticut in the East Regional final at the Meadowlands in 1990, this one had more drama because of what preceded it.
"It was a designed play," said Laettner, who finished with 31 points on 10 of 10 shooting each from the field and the foul line, as well as a technical for stepping on the chest of Kentucky's Aminu Timberlake. "We had a few different options, but I was the first option. Grant had to throw a long baseball pass to me. Grant threw me a perfect pass."
Said Hill: "It seemed like a movie, like when [Robert] Redford came up to bat in 'The Natural' and hits the home run. It took forever for the ball to come down, and then it seemed to take a long time for Christian to shoot it. It felt like Hollywood."
After Laettner's shot went in, after the hysteria died down, the crowd at the Spectrum stood around in a daze, a murmur heard throughout the arena. It was similar to the scene after Lorenzo Charles threw down the dunk to beat Houston in the 1983 NCAA final in Albuquerque, N.M., similar to the scene after Keith Smart's baseline jumper for Indiana beat Syracuse in New Orleans five years ago.
And, for those who were part of the 1974 game between N.C. State and Maryland, it was similar for another reason -- the empathy they had for the losing team. The loss to the Wolfpack meant that one of the best Terrapins teams of this generation wouldn't go to the NCAA tournament -- the field was expanded the next year, and more than one team per conference was allowed.
"I felt so bad because there was an injustice done," said Elmore. "You're there on the verge of a major upset and then have something like that happen."
Said Packer: "I remember watching that game [Maryland-N.C. State] and thinking that you didn't want it to end and that you didn't want to see either team lose. I thought the same thing this time."
Perhaps it was left to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to sum up the emotions of Saturday night. It was only 30 minutes after Laettner's shot had gone in.
"My heart goes out to the Kentucky kids and staff, because we could just as easily be the losing team," said Krzyzewski. "I think we've all been part of one of the great games ever."
Maybe even the greatest.