Devils provide haunting memory 1992: Christian Laettner's jumper settled things the last time Kentucky and Duke met in a regional final, and the Blue Devils eventually won their second consecutive title.

NCAA Tournament

March 22, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sean Woods still can't believe his shot didn't win the game for Kentucky. Six years have helped dull the pain he felt that March night in Philadelphia, but they have done nothing to dim the memory of what many called the greatest college basketball game ever played.

"I thought it was over," Woods recalled Friday, speaking from Lexington, Ky., where he works in sales at a television station. "There were only two seconds to go. When he shot and turned, I knew it was good. My body just went numb."

So did most of those at the Spectrum who witnessed the play that began with Grant Hill's uncontested inbounds pass of nearly 80 feet and ended with Christian Laettner's 17-foot turnaround jump shot, giving Duke a 104-103, overtime victory and a trip to the Final Four.

Duke guard Bobby Hurley, who was the second option on the play for the Blue Devils, said he doesn't remember much about what happened immediately after Laettner's shot went in. It finished a perfect evening for Laettner, who hit all 10 of his field-goal attempts and all 10 of his free throws, outscoring Kentucky star Jamal Mashburn, 31-28.

"I remember the ball going in," Hurley said Friday from Chicago, where he was getting ready for a game against the Bulls as a member of the Vancouver Grizzlies. "The next thing I remember was sitting in the locker room."

Those memories have been stirring since Duke and Kentucky were made the top two seeds in the NCAA South Regional, just as they were in the 1992 East Regional. Today's matchup in the regional final at Tropicana Field has been hyped as few NCAA tournament games have since.

It wasn't just the ending that made the game six years ago rank among the greatest ever. Many said it even eclipsed North Carolina State's 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland in the 1974 ACC tournament championship game. The Wildcats, considered sizable underdogs, hit 12 of 22 three-pointers to stay with the Blue Devils.

"It was an unbelievable game because we were the defending NCAA champions, it was a regional final and we wouldn't have won back-to-back titles without it," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said yesterday. "What makes a great game is not just the game itself, but what's at stake."

When Woods drove around Hurley, lifting a desperation 15-foot runner over Laettner's outstretched arms, it seemed as if Kentucky was finished. But the ball banked in high off the backboard, giving the Wildcats a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds left and the Blue Devils a feeling that their run as national champions was over.

"I was saying to myself that if that guy makes a shot like that, it was not meant to be," recalled Hurley. "In the huddle [during a timeout], I thought the guys were a little discouraged. It was like we had seen our whole season pass right in front of our eyes. Coach said we could still win."

Asked yesterday if he thought his team had a chance to win, Krzyzewski said: "I believed it. When you're with a group, they not only hear you, they see you and the look in your eyes if you're not telling the truth and exactly how you feel. At that moment, I believed it. If I looked back at the tape of it, I might not believe it."

As the teams went back on the court, the Blue Devils were surprised to see nobody guarding Hill as he went to throw the ball in under Kentucky's basket. Wildcats coach Rick Pitino had instructed two of his players, John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, to stay with Laettner.

"One of us was supposed to be in back and one in front," said Feldhaus, who is back in Lexington after playing professional basketball for five years in Japan. "I guess there was some miscommunication, because both of us wound up in front of him. We didn't want to foul."

Hill said: "I was so happy they didn't guard me. My eyes lit up."

Though Pitino has been second-guessed for six years about not trying to guard the inbounds pass, Feldhaus said: "If we had done what we were supposed to do, Laettner would never had touched the ball." Even Hurley said: "I think that was blown way out of proportion."

The defeat became the catalyst for Kentucky's return to prominence, culminating with a national championship two years ago. Mashburn was the only player on that team to make it to the NBA, but the other four starters on a team called "The Unforgettables" have their jersey numbers hung in Rupp Arena.

What is also memorable to those who were there and to those who watched the replay is the raw emotions exhibited by both teams. Hurley said that he later kidded Thomas Hill about the way his former teammate appeared to be crying.

The first person Krzyzewski saw was Kentucky guard Richie Farmer.

"The thing I'll remember was Richie Farmer's face," Krzyzewski said. "To me, that was the deepest emotion I saw on the court. At the moment of our elation was their moment of deep defeat."

Barely in high school at the time, the players on this year's teams were affected by that game. Most of the Kentucky players said yesterday that they didn't even watch it. Many of the Duke players said they watched it, but didn't really care about its outcome.

"I rooted for Duke," said Duke guard Trajan Langdon, who was living in Alaska, "but I didn't even know where Duke was."

For Kentucky senior Scott Padgett, it was different.

He was a 16-year-old Kentucky fan growing up in Louisville.

"I remember being pretty upset," he said. "I might have thrown something [at the television set]. Maybe in the eyes of the fans, we can redeem things by winning tomorrow."

It would not help Sean Woods.

"That will always be with me," Woods said. "I still don't believe we lost."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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