Twenty years after Laettner's shot, Duke-Kentucky mystique endures

Photo courtesy of Duke athletics

Hundreds of games before. Hundreds since. None I've witnessed matches. Perhaps none will.

Duke 104, Kentucky 103.

March 28, 1992.

To riff off the Beatles: It was 20 years ago today, Christian Laettner caught the pass for K.

It was a Saturday night in South Philadelphia, where the Blue Devils and Wildcats traded haymakers like that city’s most renowned heavyweights: Joe Frazier and Rocky Balboa.

Their fight was fierce and sublime.

I remember. Comrade Dave Fairbank and I were there.

Funny thing is, the anticipation for this NCAA East Regional final was tame.

No matter that Duke and Kentucky were the top two seeds and had clashed in the 1978 national title game, won by the Wildcats. No matter that the Blue Devils were reigning champions and attempting to become the first program to repeat since UCLA in 1973.

CBS didn’t even have it’s purported A team on the broadcast. The assignment fell to Verne Lundquist, underrated then and now.

Maybe folks just assumed Duke would reach the Final Four in Minneapolis. After all, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s program had been there five of the previous six years, including the last four.

Or maybe it was Kentucky. This was the Wildcats’ first NCAA tournament since rules violations had rendered them ineligible for postseason and prompted a humiliating Sports Illustrated cover headline: “Kentucky’s Shame.”

The chances of third-year coach Rick Pitino’s team of obscure talents — Jamal Mashburn excepted — ending the Devils’ quest seemed remote.

As they did when Duke led by 12 points midway through the second half. The Devils were shooting better than 60 percent, and Laettner, their All-America forward, hadn’t missed. In fact, early in the first half, Laettner had passed Elvin Hayes as the NCAA tournament’s career scoring leader.

Laettner also had stepped on the chest of a fallen Aminu Timberlake, a defenseless stunt that today, with officials’ reviews, would have gotten him ejected.

You know how central Laettner, and that oversight, became.

Kentucky rallied, harassing Duke into turnovers and making a flurry of 3-pointers. Dale Brown, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, John Pelphrey: Who were these guys?

As important: Were the Devils, ranked No. 1 since preseason, beaten twice and rarely challenged, starting to wilt from months of pressure and praise?

Tied at 93, the teams headed to overtime, and with 2.1 seconds remaining, Woods’ off-balanced shot in the lane over Laettner crashed off the backboard and through the net. Kentucky led by one.