There is nothing quite like sport to capture the imagination and dreams of millions around the world. It is something about the unpredictability of each play, the moments of drama, the passion that you can feel while watching your favourite team. Every so often, however, you watch a game that is quite unlike the rest. A game that sweeps you up in the theatre of the moment and allows you to experience every emotion under the sun. In this new series, “Classic College Games”, we will be exploring a vintage college showdown from history across all sports. This week, we look at Duke vs Kentucky from the 1992 March Madness Tournament, which gave us “The Shot”.
This game was always going to be a titanic matchup. In 1990, Duke had lost the national championship game to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels. Duke were annihilated by 30 points, an embarrassing end to a promising season However, they used the experience to hone their mental edge and develop an unbeatable core. In 1991, the Blue Devils had improved their lineup with Grant Hill, future NBA star. They had defeated the Runnin’ Rebels in a rematch of the year before, and gone on to win their first ever March Madness title. This allowed coach Mike Kryzewski to pave the way to a dynasty that still reigns at the top of the basketball heap today.
In 1992, Duke had retained all their core players from the previous season. They returned to the March Madness tournament aiming to be the first team to win back-to-back national championships since UCLA in 1972 and 1973. Duke was a star-studded team, with Christian Laettner (“the most hated man in America”), Bobby Hurley, and the aforementioned Grant Hill.
The 1992 Kentucky team, on the other hand, had grown into one of the all-time great Kentucky basketball teams. On top of this, Kentucky had just ended a two year postseason ban enforced due to major recruiting violations. However, their new coach, future Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, had brought together a tight-knit core of players. These four seniors had remained loyal throughout the ban and were ready to challenge for national glory. The team was christened “The Unforgettables” – and unforgettable they certainly were.
The game itself was an instant classic. At no point during the 40 regulation minutes or the 5 overtime minutes was it possible to truly call a winner, with the teams being separated by only a few points throughout the contest. At halftime, Duke led 50-45, and the game had already developed a keen edge. During the second half, Wildcats player Aminu Timberlake was knocked down. As he lay on the floor, Christian Laettner – already a massively unpopular figure with basketball fans – stamped on his chest. The referees assessed Laettner a technical foul, but controversially he was not ejected from the game. This would prove crucial in the rest of the game, as you will soon see.
With just over 30 seconds left in regulation, Kentucky tied the game at 93-93. Duke had a chance to win the game, but Bobby Hurley’s shot drifted wide as time expired. The game went into overtime.
The game remained impossibly close throughout the overtime period, with the lead changing hands at a dizzying rate. Eventually, Kentucky pulled ahead 98-96, but all this did was put Christian Laettner into beast mode. Laettner took over, scoring the Blue Devils’ next 6 points, and giving them a 102-101 lead. However, with just 7 seconds on the clock, the Wildcats called a timeout and drew up a play, which resulted in senior Sean Woods scoring an amazing one-handed running bank shot down the middle over Christian Laettner to put Kentucky up 103-102 with just 2 seconds to play.
But in championship moments, championship players make the plays.
From the resulting inbound, Grant Hill passed the ball 79 feet to Laettner at the opposing foul line, who dribbled once one way, then the other, before spinning and hitting a perfect, 18-foot fadeaway as time expired to put Duke into their third consecutive national championship game. The shot at the end of the game has come to symbolize the Duke vs Kentucky rivalry since 1992.
This play has become one of the most iconic in college history, and is commonly referred to as “The Shot”. Laettner was already notorious in the sports world, and this only increased his infamy. The decision to not eject Laettner earlier in the game also saw increased scrutiny, and remained controversial in the immediate aftermath of the game.
Laettner would go on to be the only college player in the iconic 1992 Olympic “Dream Team”. However, he would not deliver on his college promise once he got to the NBA. He remained a controversial figure, but has stayed in the public eye in the years since.
The Wildcats, for their part, went down as the true “Unforgettables”. The team produced several successful college coaches, and even a Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky. They also resurrected Kentucky’s basketball program. This has seen it continue as a powerhouse, and produce players like Anthony Davis.
This game also cemented Coach Mike Kryzewski’s legacy as one of the great college coaches. This game would eventually lead to the second of his five championships, and establish Duke as a team to be feared. “The Shot” – as well as the Duke vs Kentucky game from 1992 – was instantly written into sports history.
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