Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 1990: Laettner, Part 1

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - All great players must start somewhere. All reputations for great clutch ability have to come from one original, trend-setting performance.

Entering the 1990 NCAA tournament, the Duke Blue Devils hadn't yet become the team that struck fear in all teams who played them in the NCAA tournament. Sure, they had been to the Final Four three of the previous four seasons, but they hadn't yet won the title, and so weren't quite yet considered among college basketball's elite.

One of Duke's top players in 1990 was a sophomore forward named Christian Laettner. Though he would become later known as one of the best college basketball players of all time, in 1990, he was simply an overachieving sophomore, starting on a top-10 team.

The Blue Devils advanced to the East Regional final in 1990, winning their first three tournament games fairly easily. Their opponent in the regional final was top-seeded Connecticut. UConn had advanced to this game on the strength of a last-second shot off of a length-of-the-floor pass to beat Clemson in its previous game, so the Huskies should have been used to playing tight games.

Duke and Connecticut played a classic game that night in the Meadowlands, with the game going to overtime. With Connecticut ahead by one with 2.6 seconds left, Duke sent Laettner in to inbound the basketball. UConn made the fatal mistake of taking their eyes off the inbounds passer for only a moment, but it was enough. Laettner caught the return pass, dribbled to the free-throw line, pumped once, then drained the jumper that sent Duke back to the Final Four.

Though a shot like that would have been the highlight of the career for most players, for Laettner, the shot has almost come to be forgotten. Since Duke got trounced in the 1990 title game by UNLV, his heroics to get them there have been overshadowed by shots he made the subsequent two years. But it was his shot against Connecticut that started his reputation as the best big-game player in college basketball history.

The shot (no sound):

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