Excerpted from the book 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, by Ryan Clark and Joe Cox.
Sean Woods’ floating one-hander, shot on the run across the lane, arced just over the fingers of Duke’s Christian Laettner, kissed off the glass, and fell softly through the net. UK 103, Duke 102. The crowd in Philadelphia’s Spectrum exploded at the astonishing end to a great game, maybe, some thought, the greatest game. UK’s Unforgettables, college basketball’s loveable losers, had forever and unequivocally shed the loser role. They had gone from a 14–14 team to the Final Four in only three years. Hollywood might have rejected such a script because it was too implausible to ever take place. But now it had. Almost. There were still 2.1 seconds on the clock.
All day long, Duke had the answer for whatever Kentucky threw at them. Of course, they would have. The 1991–92 Duke team was the defending NCAA champion, and stood at 31–2 and No. 1 in the nation coming into the NCAA regional final against UK. In Duke’s main six-man rotation, future NBA lottery picks Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill were featured. UK, on the other hand, was a plucky 29–6 squad that had just recovered from time spent on NCAA probation. Other than Jamal Mashburn, no other Wildcat in this game logged an NBA minute.
The pundits gave Kentucky little chance. On paper, the game looked to be a rout. But on one magical evening, the greatest game ever played transpired between two gutsy, dogged, and ultimately amazing teams.
Duke jumped to an early lead. At halftime, the Devils led 50–45. Kentucky remained committed to playing the game in their up-tempo run-and-gun style, confident that if they did so, their run at the Blue Devils would come. With 11:08 remaining, Duke stretched its lead to 12 points. And then the run came. Kentucky scored eight unanswered points. The two teams went back and forth, and made clutch shot after clutch shot, neither fading under the pressure.
The two teams were tied at 93 at the end of regulation. Until the bitter end of overtime, the two teams traded baskets. Christian Laettner, strangely not ejected after stomping on UK reserve center Aminu Timberlake in the second half, hit a tough runner. Duke led 100–98. Mashburn answered for UK with a basket and a foul. The free throw put UK up 101–100 with 19.6 seconds remaining. Just 5.5 seconds later, Mashburn committed his fifth foul and went to the bench. Christian Laettner sank two free throws—he hadn’t missed a shot all game. Duke led 102–101.
And then Woods, finding the guts to take the biggest shot in the biggest game, threw up his running bank shot in the lane. The Big Blue Nation erupted. Kentucky had done it.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew better. “We’re going to win,” he told his team in the huddle, and he drew up a long pass from Grant Hill to Laettner. Pitino, for his part, decided not to guard the in-bounds pass. He would double-team Laettner with Unforgettable seniors John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus. He cautioned them not to foul. They certainly did not.
With an uncontested sight line, Hill launched a perfect baseball pass, 75′ on the fly. Pelphrey and Feldhaus both froze, with Laettner catching the ball at the foul line, dribbling, firing, swishing his shot at the final buzzer. The UK jubilation turned to disbelief. Winning and losing players alike cried on the court. The greatest game ever had ended, and Duke had made one more play than Kentucky.
For Kentucky’s part, the greatest game loss was just another sign that UK basketball was back. Four years later, UK would celebrate its sixth NCAA title. Pelphrey, Farmer, Feldhaus, and Woods each admit that they still haven’t forgotten their brush with glory, or the bitterness that their heartbreaking near miss inspired. As long as UPS and CBS have air space, each March brings numerous replays of the heart-breaking shot. Big Blue Nation awaits a commercial about four hard-nosed seniors and a never-say-die team who overachieved to the brink of college basketball’s greatest miracle and lost only to perfection.