|Monday, December 17
'92 loss to Duke proved UK could win again
By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com
"Oh, my God. People always remind me of that game. I compare it to when President Kennedy got shot. Everybody remembers exactly where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when Christian Laettner hit that shot."
At first glance, what Farmer said above might easily be construed as utterly lacking perspective. Comparing reactions to a basketball game with a presidential assassination? Please.
Except that in Farmer's home state of Kentucky, it's true. That is exactly the way people remember Duke 104, Kentucky 103, on March 28, 1992 -- acclaimed by many the greatest college basketball game ever played.
In Kentucky, at least, it is certainly the most vividly remembered game ever played. You could take a poll on a busy street corner in Louisville, or on a rural road in Farmer's tiny hometown of Manchester, and just about everybody can give you immediate and exact recall.
The impact of Laettner's 17-foot jump shot at the final horn was that percussive. The emotions were that raw. The stakes were that high. And the Kentucky team was that revered.
"People have told me numerous stories about where they were at the time, and the funny thing is they always remember the little details," Farmer said.
I remember where I was. Courtside in The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Awestruck. And trying to write about it on deadline.
After that game, the NCAA selection committee realized that matching up Duke and Kentucky was a brilliant stroke. So they tried to do it again in 1994. Kentucky didn't keep its side of the bargain, being upset by Marquette in the second round. Last year was another near-miss -- in Philly, no less -- when the Wildcats were upset by Southern California, ruining a reincarnated East Regional final with Duke.
But the committee did successfully engineer another classic Duke-Kentucky March moment, in 1998. That time, the Wildcats won an incredible regional final on the way to a national title, coming from 17 points down with less than 12 minutes to play to win 86-84.
The basket that wiped out the last of that lead and put the Cats ahead for the first time, 80-79, came on a 3-pointer by senior Cameron Mills -- a slow-footed, walk-on shooting specialist from Lexington whose daddy, Terry, played for Adolph Rupp. Framed panoramic photos of Mills hitting that shot, autographed by the shooter, are big sellers in Kentucky malls this Christmas season at $195 apiece.
The ball wound up in Mills' hands after a furious battle for a rebound, as Kentucky forward Heshimu Evans swatted it back to the top of the key in desperation. Mills did what came naturally: caught and shot. Today, his only recollection of that moment comes from watching tapes of the game. He can't remember it happening.
"I did a little pirouette at midcourt and pumped my fist," he said. "I don't remember that, either."
Interesting, because he can recall the 1992 Duke-Kentucky climax vividly. Cameron Mills is one of those people Richie Farmer was talking about.
Mills watched the game at home alone, "sitting in my dad's old recliner." He clearly recalled "hitting the floor" when Sean Woods' banker went in for a 103-102 Kentucky lead.
"I called one of my friends and just screamed 'We're going to do it! We're going to do it! We're going to do it!' " Mills recalled. "Then on the next play, Christian hit that shot and I just sat there, stunned."
Which is why providing the payback to Duke six years later really did matter to Mills and fellow from-the-crib Kentucky fan Scott Padgett, who also hit a huge 3 in the final minute.
"I think when we look back down the road, Cam and I can say we did this for our state, our fans and our school," Padgett says proudly today.
Duke and Kentucky have played just one other time since then, in December 1998. The Blue Devils won that one handily, 71-60, with a huge game from Elton Brand.
Tuesday night in the Meadowlands, they meet again. It's hard to believe that the latest Duke-Kentucky game comes in the 10th anniversary of that 1991-92 season.
It was a watershed year in college basketball.
That season saw Duke become the first repeat champion since the John Wooden dynasty at UCLA. It saw Duke ranked No. 1 every single week of the season. We haven't had a repeat champ or a wire-to-wire No. 1 team since.
The season saw Bob Knight make his last Final Four appearance at Indiana. It saw the Fab Five make its first Final Four appearance, materializing as brazen Michigan freshmen and shaking the game to its foundation -- without winning a national title, or even a Big Ten crown. And it saw Kentucky make a fairy-tale return from the ash heap of scandal and probation, a rag-tag group playing its way into history.
The story behind the story is this: the path to that game actually began four years earlier, in Springfield, Mass. The first college game and the last college game Farmer and fellow Kentuckians John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus ever played were against Duke.
"They beat the fire out of us," Farmer said of Duke 80, Kentucky 55 in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass.
Sports Illustrated's story on that game ran under the headline, "Blue Devils vs. Devil Blue." Dick Vitale went on the air before the game and called for Wildcats coach Eddie Sutton to resign.
Kentucky was beginning the bleakest season in its history, a 13-19 disaster completed with one of the most infamous NCAA scandals ever hanging over its head. It began the previous spring, when an overnight envelope from the Kentucky basketball office to recruit Chris Mills popped open, revealing $1,000 dollars in cash.
Pelphrey, Feldhaus and Farmer were lost boys, playing for a lost cause. Recruited as afterthoughts, it was their lifelong dream was to play at Kentucky -- but not this Kentucky.
But the worst thing that ever hit Kentucky turned out to be one of the best things that ever hit Kentucky. The scandal led to Sutton resigning at the end of the season and the school hiring Rick Pitino in May 1989, setting in motion the rejuvenation of a tarnished program.
A rejuvenation that came full circle in The Spectrum.
By then, Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer and Indianapolis product Woods had become the foundation of a spectacular success story. The four seniors who stuck it out in Lexington -- through mass transfers, and a probation that denied the Wildcats postseason play for two years -- brought Kentucky back. (With an admittedly large assist from sophomore Jamal Mashburn, the best player on that team.)
The Wildcats entered that game 29-6. And seemingly without a chance against 31-2 Duke.
The Blue Devils performed as expected, sprinting to a 67-55 lead in the second half. Duke sliced up a Kentucky zone Pitino had employed to offset severe matchup problems, and the Blue Devils appeared to be pulling away toward the Final Four.
That's when Pitino called a timeout and unleashed the hounds, throwing his team's trademark full-court pressure at junior point guard Bobby Hurley. The Cats came back, and the game began to take on the feel of a classic.
The final few minutes of regulation and overtime produced some of the finest offensive basketball ever seen. Mashburn at one end, Laettner at the other, basket after basket in an exceptional game of can-you-top-this?
In the closing seconds of OT, it finally appeared that Kentucky had the shot that couldn't be topped. Following a UK timeout with 7.8 seconds to play, Woods curled off a wicked Pelphrey screen that flattened Hurley, drove from the top of the key to just inside the foul line and flung a one-handed shot, high over the 6-foot-11 Laettner. The ball shot off the backboard and through the net in flukish fashion.
(Pitino had put the ball in Woods' hands at the end of a half or a game many times in three seasons, with uniformly disappointing results. The one shot he did make was in the final seconds at Mississippi State in 1991 -- a driving layup when the Cats were down three, as he lost track of the score. Against Duke, the hard-luck kid finally got it right, in the biggest moment of his career.)
Duke called timeout with 2.1 seconds left.
Mike Krzyzewski immediately told his players, "We're going to win the game." Not sure whether he believed it, but it needed to be said. Then he drew up the most famous play in college basketball history.
Grant Hill's 75-foot baseball pass was aided and abetted by Pitino's fateful decision not to put any pressure on Hill. Instead, he had Pelphrey and Feldhaus double-team Laettner.
Pelphrey went for the pass, and to this day can't understand how he missed it. But the ball wound up in Laettner's hands, and after lightly bumping Laettner, Pelphrey backed away, not wanting to risk a foul. Feldhaus also kept his distance.
Laettner's exceptional internal clock told him he had time for a stabilizing dribble before turning to his right and launching a high, arcing shot through the exhausted Spectrum air.
Laettner had taken 19 other shots in the game, nine from the field and 10 from the foul line. He had made all of them, and this one made him a mythic 20 for 20. From where I sat on press row, you knew it was good the instant it left his hand.
The immediate aftermath illustrated how much had been invested in the game. Laettner made his victory dash back upcourt before being swallowed by his delirious teammates. Woods sprawled under the basket, face-down. Pelphrey put his hands to his red hair in shock. On the Duke bench, Thomas Hill also put his hands on his head, as tears streamed down his face.
And his team won.
Krzyzewski showed remarkable composure, class and empathy. He consoled Farmer, then went over to legendary Kentucky radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford. As Ledford was ending a peerless career and signing off from his final Kentucky game, Krzyzewski asked for his headset and expressed his admiration for the Wildcats directly to their fans.
Duke, of course, went on to beat Indiana and Michigan to win the national title. Kentucky went home to a hero's welcome, and a surprise honor for Woods, Farmer, Feldhaus and Pelphrey from athletic director C.M. Newton shortly after the season.
"Today, our program is back on top, due largely to four young men who persevered, who weathered the hard times, and who brought back the good times to Kentucky basketball," Newton said, as they raised the players' jerseys to the rafters in Rupp.
They're remembered as "The Unforgettables" in Kentucky lore. Their final game has proven truly unforgettable for everyone who saw it.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com