Sunday, March 22, 1998
Game of the Century
Best ever: UK-Duke game of '92

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Duke's Christian Laettner puts up the game-winner over Kentucky's Deron Feldhaus.
(AP photo)
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Cawood Ledford had broadcast 39 years of Kentucky basketball, but this was his last game, and unlike any before it. As Christian Laettner's final shot nestled into the twine at the overtime buzzer, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan scribbled on a piece of notebook paper and flashed it to Ledford:

''Best game ever?''

Ledford, the Voice of the Wildcats, spoke for his audience. ''It hurt, because Kentucky played so hard,'' he said. ''But it probably was.''

That was March 28, 1992. Duke's 104-103 overtime victory in the East Region final at The Spectrum in Philadelphia will serve as a backdrop for today's South Region title game, if only because the teams haven't met since.

Six years ago, in the 100th-anniversary season of Dr. James Naismith hanging up the peach basket, two storied schools delivered the game of the century.

The criteria for a great game is threefold. It must be significant, well-played and have drama. The setup was ideal.

Duke was reigning royalty, ranked No. 1 all season and chasing its second consecutive national title. Kentucky was rising from the ashes of NCAA probation, excelling through the grit of an unsung senior class.

The teams combined to shoot 61 percent, and Laettner's 20 shots - 10 from the field, 10 from the free-throw line - all found the net. In the final 31.5 seconds, the ball changed hands five times, and each possession resulted not only in a score but in a lead change.

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Laettner and teammate Grant Hill celebrate.
(AP photo)
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''People who saw it knew it was a great game,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has said. ''They didn't need any announcer or sportswriter to tell them it was. Any basketball fan who saw it felt disbelief that any of it could happen.''

The drama began with 11:08 remaining, with Duke leading 67-55. Then-UK coach Rick Pitino had figured on one advantage: No one was in better shape than UK. Its defense - Pitino called it the mother-in-law, for its ''constant pressure and harassment'' - could turn it into a stamina test.

He switched from zone to man-to-man. ''We have them right where we want them,'' he told his players. ''Now we make our comeback.''

UK scored eight straight points in the next minute, but Duke put its foot down, literally.

The Stomp came with 8 minutes left. With a five-point lead, Laettner powered into UK's Aminu Timberlake on the low post, and the collision left Timberlake on his back in the lane. An instant later, Laettner took his right foot and planted it deliberately into Timberlake's stomach.

The Wildcats believed Laettner would be ejected, but he was given only a technical foul. Emotions flaring, both parties cranked up the tempo thereafter.

UK finally tied it at 93 with 33.6 seconds left, as sixth man Deron Feldhaus stuck back a John Pelphrey miss. A spent Bobby Hurley - with 10 assists but also eight turnovers - missed an off-balance jumper as time expired. Overtime.

After Pelphrey hit a three-pointer, Duke's Brian Davis fouled out. But when Grant Hill grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Hurley for a three-pointer, UK's advantage was gone.

When UK led 98-96, Laettner took over. Already the leading scorer in NCAA Tournament history, he would score Duke's last six points. After the first of Laettner's final three baskets, Pitino muttered to himself, ''That sucker's never going to miss.''

Laettner gave Duke a lead with an off-balance line drive that banked in, but UK star Jamal Mashburn answered with a three-point play. With 7.8 seconds left, Mashburn fouled out, and Laettner's two free throws put Duke up 103-102.

All four UK seniors were now on the floor. Sean Woods, who had a history of late-game misses, put a fake on Hurley and headed to the hole. He stopped in the lane, 10 feet out, and flipped up a shot he called ''a little push, one-hand shot.'' With Laettner closing, he needed extra arc, and it banked high off the backboard and in.

''How did he find the courage to take that kind of shot?'' CBS announcer Verne Lundquist asked.

Duke called time, with 2.1 seconds left. Krzyzewski immediately told his team, ''We're gonna win.''

He asked Hill if he could throw a three-quarter-court pass, and asked Laettner if he could catch it. Both nodded yes.

Pitino and his staff spent much of the time out debating whether to put a man on the ball. Six years earlier, coaching Providence, Pitino had seen his team lose to St. John's when it didn't cover the inbounds pass, and Pitino vowed never again to leave one uncovered.

But these were special circumstances. The 6-foot-9 Mashburn and 6-8 Gimel Martinez had fouled out, and Pitino didn't consider two 6-9 freshmen, Timberlake and Andre Riddick, options. That left Feldhaus and Pelphrey, both 6-7, to sandwich the 6-11, 250-pound Laettner.

''We wanted to stay between him and the basket and not foul him,'' Pelphrey said. ''With 2.1 seconds to go, them having to go the length of the floor, you'll take your chances with that.''

Hill tossed it nearly 70 feet, and Pelphrey tracked its flight. It was headed right to him.

''There was no doubt in my mind I was going to catch it,'' he said afterward. ''I could almost feel the leather. I took a step or two backwards. I kind of jumped. And he had it.''

Laettner landed, took one dribble and faked right - ''to create some distance,'' he said - then spun left and leaped, floating for a 17-foot fallaway. The ball left his hand with two-10ths of a second. Somehow, neither he nor Krzyzewski saw it land, but knew.

''Our guys were like, 'Please miss,' '' said then-UK assistant Billy Donovan, who now coaches Florida. ''It went in, and I couldn't believe it. Then I looked at the stat sheet and saw Laettner was 10-for-10 from the field, and it was like, 'Wow, this guy didn't miss anything.' ''

Woods crumpled, facedown. He lay there a minute without moving. A security guard came over to be sure he was still breathing.

Krzyzewski started to celebrate, then saw Richie Farmer in front of him. He remembered the UK seniors from the Tipoff Classic three seasons earlier, when Duke had blitzed the probation-strapped Wildcats by 25, knowing how far they had come, and felt the anguish this near-miss had meant.

''Richie, I'm sorry,'' he told him. ''I'm so sorry.''

Laettner found Woods.

''Nice game,'' Laettner said.

''Nice shot,'' Woods said.

Duke ended up repeating its NCAA title, the only program in the last 23 years to do so.

In failure, those Wildcats gained something the Big Blue, college basketball's self-styled Roman Empire, had never seemed worthy of, through five NCAA titles and 1,530 victories: sympathy.

''We are not losers,'' Pitino told his players.

He produced the Sports Illustrated cover story from three years earlier, the one about UK's probation, titled ''Kentucky Shame.''

''You've taken Kentucky all the way back from this.''

They were dubbed the Unforgettables, for the state would remember this group for reviving its basketball brilliance. The seniors - Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Woods and Farmer, all from small towns in Kentucky - were given the rare honor of having their jerseys retired.

In Kentucky, as current Wildcat Cameron Mills says, ''Duke became a four-letter word.'' A horse at the Red Mile, a harness track in Lexington, once ran as Laettner Be Gone. Last week, with Duke playing first- and second-round games in Lexington, UK fans turned out to boo the Blue Devils.

Beating Duke is a UK fan's dream - six long years in the making.

'Cats, Devils duke it out
Only the true Big Blue understand
Complete tournament coverage from Associated Press