Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 1992: Laettner, part 3

PHILADELPHIA - Anybody who watched will always remember where they were. Just close your eyes, and it comes back to you. The ending is transfixing: Antonio Lang watches the ball fall through the hoop at the buzzer and collapses in a heap in the lane, completely in shock. Thomas Hill walks in shock toward the sideline, hands on his head. When he turns around, you can see the tears.

But here's the amazing thing: Lang and Hill were on the winning team. Their reaction wasn't one of players who just had their souls ripped out, but rather of players so happy, in such a state of celebration, that they went into shock.

It was that kind of game.

Rewind your memory now. Remember the incredible, mind-blowing play between Duke and Kentucky that day in Philadelphia. Remember that, despite all the pressure in the game itself, the teams combined to shoot 61 percent from the floor. Or that, in the second half and overtime, when the game stayed tight and each possession had added importance, they upped that percentage to 63 percent.

Remember the time out late in the game, when Duke point guard Bobby Hurley reminded his players, "if they score, remember to call time out." You could say he was showing a lack of confidence in his teammates. Or you could say that he simply knew how the game was going to turn out. Because when Sean Woods fired that off-balance 13-footer with less than five seconds to play, it should have come as no surprise that it barely cleared the outstretched fingertips of Christian Laettner and somehow found the bottom of the net. Kentucky was up 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left. And Hurley remembered to call time out.

In all reality, that's how it should have been remembered. Woods' shot should have been the biggest shot in the history of Kentucky basketball, the miracle shot that ended the greatest game ever played and knocked the defending champions out of the tournament.

But Duke still had 2.1 seconds. Sure, they had to go the length of the floor, but they still had 2.1 seconds. And they still had Laettner, the greatest clutch player in NCAA tournament history, and one who, if he got his hands on the ball, you knew damn well he was going to make the shot.

And so close your eyes again. Watch Grant Hill throw a 75-foot pass that somehow hit a double-teamed Laettner in the hands as he stood on the free-throw line. Watch as Laettner somehow found the time to fake to the right and dribble once before spinning to his left, falling away, and hitting the most famous shot in college basketball history.

And Lang is forever laying on the floor in shock. And Thomas Hill is forever crying on the sideline. And the rest of the Duke players and coaches are piled on Laettner somewhere near midcourt, celebrating the most improbable ending to the greatest college basketball game ever played.

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