March is no stranger to the improbable.
Buzzer-beaters and Cinderella runs perennially punctuate a month fittingly named for its madness. Whether it's Marcus Paige’s ridiculous off-balance three to tie North Carolina and Villanova with mere seconds left in the 2016 NCAA championship game or the buzzer-beater drained by the Wildcats’ Kris Jenkins moments later, college basketball’s premier tournament brings the drama every year. In its most recent installment, it’s even given us the first-ever Duke-North Carolina tournament matchup and a historic run to the Elite Eight for minnow Saint Peter’s.
If we’re talking dramatic moments in March, though, we’d be remiss to leave out perhaps the most dramatic moment the storied tournament has ever delivered.
Thirty years ago to the day, head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were on the verge of their fifth Final Four appearance in as many years. Having returned players like Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and, crucially, Christian Laettner from the 1991 championship run, these Blue Devils were poised—neigh, expected—to push for title number two and to be the first repeat champions since the John Wooden-led UCLA group of the early 70s.
Standing in their way was No. 2-seed Kentucky, marshaled by head coach Rick Pitino. The Wildcats, headlined by a group of three Kentucky-born seniors now known as “the Unforgettables,” put up an immensely impressive season of their own, winning the SEC East outright and triumphing in the conference tournament. They had also dominated the NCAA tournament thus far, dispatching Old Dominion, Iowa State and a John Calipari-led Massachusetts en route to an Elite Eight date with the top-ranked Blue Devils.
This game was expected to be a good one from the moment it was announced, but nobody could’ve possibly predicted that it would be as good as it was. At the end of regulation, the game sat tied 93-93, with a Bobby Hurley attempt to win it at the buzzer narrowly missing. Within those 40 minutes was a perfect shooting performance from Laettner, a handful of dishes from Hurley and one of the most controversial moments in the sport’s history when Duke’s senior star stepped on Kentucky player Aminu Timberlake’s chest.
Laettner has a compelling case to be the best-ever player in college hoops and a big part of that has to do with how he performed against the Wildcats. The Angola, N.Y., native didn’t miss a single shot or free throw all game, and once it was obvious the game was headed into an extra five minutes, Laettner took it as his cue to rewrite basketball lore.
He scored Duke’s final six points in that extra period, but Kentucky sought to spoil the party. With just 7.8 seconds left on the clock and his team trailing by one, the Wildcats’ Sean Woods charged to the basket and let one go with a single hand, leaving just 2.1 seconds on the board and a score of 103-102, sending the Kentucky faithful in attendance into a frenzy.
Then Krzyzewski called a timeout.
Clipboard in hand and an all-time cast of collegiate stars surrounding him, he drew a play. Grant Hill would take the inbound and heave it upcourt, hopefully into the hands of Duke’s renaissance man who’d controlled the game from whistle to whistle.
When Krzyzewski asked Laettner if he could make the shot, the senior responded famously, “Coach, if he makes the pass I’ll catch it.”
2.1 seconds on the clock, every Duke player except Hill downcourt and a one-in-a-million shot at sending Duke to another Final Four, he let fly. Laettner leapt high to grab the inch-perfect pass, took a power dribble, spun and launched a shot as he faded backwards.
With the sound of a buzzer and an emphatic “Yes!” by announcer Verne Lundquist, that improbable shot became the most iconic shot in NCAA history, and with it certified Laettner as a college hoops legend.
For Duke fans, anyway.
The shot was Laettner's second Final Four-clinching buzzer beater in three tournaments, and the Blue Devils went on to defeat Indiana and Michigan en route to national title number two.
Here, 30 years later, though perhaps without Laettner-esque drama, Duke is set for its 17th all-time Final Four in New Orleans as it aims to finish off the hunt for its sixth title.
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