Coach K, Duke stars recall Christian Laettner’s shot that slayed Kentucky and propelled a dynasty

The next game Mike Krzyzewski coaches with the Duke Blue Devils will be the 1,432nd of his NCAA basketball career, with only a few dozen more to follow, and still there are a particular few that are easily recalled through that avalanche of sweat, expectation, agony, pressure, ecstasy and accomplishment.

There was the 1991 national semifinal victory over UNLV, which pivoted on an audacious jumpshot by point guard Bobby Hurley. There was the 2015 NCAA championship game, when freshman reserve Grayson Allen stunned nearly everyone by coming off the bench and presenting the one puzzle the Wisconsin Badgers could not solve. “And not all of them are victories,” Krzyzewski told Sporting News. There were the last two NCAA Tournaments in which Duke appeared, each concluding in the Elite Eight, in 2018 when Allen’s attempt at a buzzer-beater to defeat Kansas rolled off the rim and a year later, when freshman RJ Barrett missed the first of two free throws that could have tied Michigan State.

And, of course, there was the moment frozen from 1992, just short of 30 years ago, Christian Laettner fielding a 70-foot pass from Grant Hill, getting the rhythm just right as the Kentucky defense cleared out for fear of fouling, then launching a 17-foot jumpshot in advance of the buzzer that may be defined as the centerpiece of college basketball’s lore and allure.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be in so many of these crazy, big moments,” Krzyzewski told SN. “Like, you’re one play away from not doing it. And so you can look and say: Man … If.

“And I look back when people say that: If? What if Laettner doesn’t hit against Connecticut? What if Laettner doesn’t hit against Kentucky? We should be thankful that we played in a lot of ‘if’ games.”

Indeed, what if Laettner had been unable to field Hill’s pass from the opposite baseline? What if Kentucky’s John Pelphrey or Darren Feldhaus – or both – had challenged his shot, made it more difficult to connect? What if he’d simply missed?

“Certainly it put us on a different level,” Hurley told SN. “It put us more shoulder-to-shoulder at the big boys’ table, with a lot of the teams that had won multiple championships. It kind of started laying the groundwork for Duke being an elite basketball program on the same terms as UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky.”

“That probably set the Duke program and Mike into a real special category,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, an assistant on that team along with Tommy Amaker and Pete Gaudet, told SN. “Nobody was able to do the back-to-back stuff since UCLA.”

So it is fitting the first game of Krzyzewski’s final lap of the college basketball landscape before retirement will be against the team that essentially made him a legend: Tuesday night, Duke vs. Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden to open the 2021-22 season. This will be their seventh meeting since that night in Philadelphia, the past four of them in this event.

These programs have towered over most everyone in the sport since – North Carolina being perhaps the only exception – with Kentucky owning 796 victories, eight Final Four appearances and three championships, Duke compiling 804 wins, seven Final Fours and four championships.

Merely by being a part of that magnificent evening, even on the wrong side of a 104-103 (overtime) final score, Kentucky was propelled toward a 1990s dynasty that included two national championships, four Final Four appearances and 31 NCAA Tournament victories.

Duke, though, needed to win that game. Failure was not an option. The Blue Devils had entered as the obvious best team, ranked No. 1 in the polls, seeded No. 1 in the East Region, the lineup stuffed with three all-time great college players and a national championship not even 12 months old already in the trophy case. Had the Devils fallen short that night, Krzyzewski still would have been an amazing coach; he had directed Duke to five of the previous six Final Fours. The first four of those ended in defeat, though, and this would have represented the program’s greatest NCAA disappointment.

“It shows just how tough it is,” Krzyzewski said. “And how, if you do win, you have to be really good, but a player has to hit something big or … It’s not just that you were smart. That’s why you don’t win this thing very often. If ever.”

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One of the first lessons Krzyzewski presented to the players on the Duke team that would contest the 1991-92 season was this: They were not to consider themselves “defending champions.” He pointed out the trophy they’d claimed with a 72-65 triumph over Kansas at the NCAA final in Indianapolis six months earlier was going to remain at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils were not defending that title; they were pursuing another.

It did not need to be said, really, that no reigning NCAA champion in 19 years had successfully pursued a second consecutive championship, and only five schools, ever, had done it. It really did not need to be said that UCLA was the most recent such program, because the Bruins’ dominance between 1964 and 1975 – 10 championships in 12 seasons – was a specter lingering over the college basketball world, taunting all programs who dared to consider themselves “great.”

“He’s always been really good with those kinds of concepts, getting guys to think about things a different way – ‘We’re not in a defensive posture here. We’re not trying to keep from getting hit; we’re looking to punch first,’ ” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who was a graduate assistant coach with that team, told SN. “We do talk about that stuff a lot as media, and maybe we do some of that stuff without really thinking. That’s one thing he does, man. He thinks. He’s always thinking about relationships, how the pieces fit together. ‘What’s this guy thinking? If I make a lineup change, is he OK with it?’

“He’s always addressed things head-on. Where other coaches may not want to rock a boat when they’re winning – what I found really interesting was when the team was winning, and he still thinks there’s something wrong, not the way it should be. He’s not going to wait until they lose to address it.”

The 1991-92 Blue Devils featured six future NBA players, including four first-round picks, two of them future All-Stars. Of the seven players in the rotation, only two competed in every game and no one started in all 36, but no disruption genuinely bothered the team until Hurley was injured in the first half of the Devils’ initial meeting with archrival North Carolina, which ended their unbeaten run at 17 games. He was diagnosed with a broken foot and missed six games, including Duke’s second defeat, against Wake Forest, then returned just as wing Grant Hill, the team’s most talented player, left the lineup with a sprained ankle.

Through all of that, the Devils were voted No. 1 in every weekly Associated Press poll. They were overwhelming favorites to win the NCAA championship. Through three rounds of the tournament, no opponent came within a dozen points of them. There was no particular reason to believe Kentucky, whose cast of “Unforgettables” had earned a No. 2 seed with their Southeastern Conference championship, would be much different in the regional final.

With a lineup that included only one future NBA player, forward Jamal Mashburn, the Wildcats were known for going deep into their bench and squeezing opponents with pressure defense. With the talent they were up against in this one, they stuck mostly with their top seven guys but never relented, anyway.

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“The most surprising thing for me – and total respect to Kentucky for how they played and their conditioning and how hard they played and well-coached they were – they took our best shot and they just kept coming,” Hurley said. “There was a point in the second half where we went up 12, and usually we would put teams away at that point. And they came back and hit two threes right away and cut it to six. They just would never go away, had that resilience about them that was pretty special.

“We never faced another opponent that, I think, we had to play the game on their terms in some ways, just because of their pressure. That was different. Usually we controlled the pace of the game and played exactly how we wanted to play. Kentucky’s style was so relentless. I think that’s what made it such a dramatic game, ultimately.”

The game was tied at 93 at the end of regulation, and after Mashburn had fouled out and taken with him UK’s best offensive option, UK was down a point with 7.8 seconds left. After a timeout, Wildcats guard Richie Farmer inbounded to guard Sean Woods, who had scored 19 points and passed for 9 assists to that point. He was the logical player to generate a shot at a game-winner. He faced Hurley, began to drive to his right, then was clear of his defender when Pelphrey screened Hurley from behind.

Laettner, 6-11, immediately switched onto Woods and raised his long arms above the 6-2 playmaker. Laettner defended it so well there was no room for Woods to drive past him. Feldhaus was open in the short corner, just a few feet away. Woods didn’t bother to notice. He stopped and jumped off his left foot just inside the foul line and rolled a half-hook over Laettner’s reach. It floated toward the goal, banked off the top of the square and dropped through the basket.

“I characterized Sean Woods’ shot as a terrible shot. Because it was,” Len Elmore, who worked the CBS broadcast of the game with play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist, told SN. “It was a great shot because of the result, but the way he took it, I just said, ‘He made it, but that was a terrible shot.’ ”

It went through the basket at 2.9 seconds. The clock did not immediately stop after a late made basket under 1992 rules. It was halted in less than a second, though, because of the instant action from the Duke players.

“Laettner, the presence of mind of that sucker: He’s walling up at 7-feet, and Woods somehow gets it over him, makes a hell of a shot … Laettner’s hands are above his head, he immediately went to the timeout signal. He didn’t bring his hands down and think about it,” Brey said. “If you look at that again, the reaction and concentration of “Timeout!” right away.”

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There were 2.1 seconds left. Prior to the clock stoppage rule change, prior to Duke’s magic that night, college basketball had seen few buzzer-beating miracles transacted in so little time. Arkansas guard U.S. Reed’s halfcourt heave to take down reigning champion Louisville, which occurred 11 years earlier, completed a sequence that began with 5 seconds left and the Razorbacks unable to advance the ball past the midcourt line. BYU star Danny Ainge’s legendary coast-to-coast drive to beat Notre Dame in that year’s Sweet 16 began with 8 seconds remaining. Time was different then.

Would it be fantastic to suggest Krzyzewski altered time during the huddle subsequent to the Woods basket that made it 103-102 in favor of Kentucky? Of course. He did, though, help change the perception of what could be transacted on a basketball court in such a brief period. He did this, at first, by installing one great notion into the five players he sent onto the court: The game was not over.

“The psychological work that Mike did coming to the bench, I mean, Tommy and I tease about that at times, like: Does he understand the game situation here? I think we’re in trouble,” Brey said with a laugh. “He’s kind of rah-rah right now. I think we’re in trouble. That’s why we were young, knucklehead assistants.”

Bilas saw the entire mood of the team change in those couple minutes.

“He snapped them back to attention when they came back to the huddle,” Bilas said. “The guys came back kind of shocked, almost slumped shoulders. And he said: We’re going to win. Look, you can have that attitude and still not win; that’s an extraordinary accomplishment to execute that play. I don’t know whether you say it’s one-in-100 or whatever it is, but if they didn’t have the mindset of, ‘We’re going to win,’ then it’s zero percent.

“I really think he got them to believe that, when they didn’t believe it coming back to the huddle.”

It wasn’t belief that led Kentucky to choose not to guard Hill as he prepared to inbound the ball. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino’s decision not to assign a defender to harass the inbound passer is one of those strategic maneuvers that continues to be debated, like Pete Carroll calling for a pass on the goal line in the final moments of the Super Bowl that ended up being a game-losing interception.

Duke had attempted to run the identical play in the regular-season loss to Wake Forest and failed when Hill, under duress from a Demon Deacons defender, threw a curveball that slid toward the sideline and left Laettner unable to complete the play.

It wasn’t Duke’s belief that caused Pelphrey to back away when Laettner fielded the ball, and Feldhaus to restrain his challenge. That Devilish confidence was an essential ingredient, though, in Hill’s touchdown-style pass, in Laettner’s clean catch, and most certainly in his correct assessment there was time to put the ball onto the floor, fake one direction so the balance would be ideal and then fire a form-perfect jumper through the rim.

“I can still remember the feeling of Christian catching it,” Hurley said. “Because then all kinds of hope just was like injected into my body. I almost felt like a hop in my step, as I remember the angle I was watching from at halfcourt. Then he started going shoulder-to-shoulder and dribbled, and the clock in my head was saying: He shouldn’t have the time to be able to do that. But it was amazing that he had that type of poise to take the full clock and get that kind of shot.”

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There was bedlam on the floor, in the arena, after Lundquist shouted “Yes!” upon Laettner’s shot finding its target. If you’ve seen the video of the play — and how could you not by now? – you’ve seen Thomas Hill’s tears of joy in front of the Duke bench and the players piling onto each other, with reserve guard Marty Clark earning three decades worth of face time with impeccable timing.

What is not on the video is the sportswriters hustling to meet deadlines because the game had spilled into overtime and there was a massive issue with the phone lines in the Spectrum media room.

You will not notice Bilas leaving the court and hustling to the locker room because he thought it was the thing to do, only to learn literally no one from the Duke program had followed. He was alone in one of the great moments in Blue Devils history.

“I didn’t know what to do. And then I realized after 30 seconds, nobody else is coming,” Bilas said. “So I went back out.”

Legendary college basketball writer John Feinstein, a Duke graduate who had covered Krzyzewski closely since his arrival in 1980, was working on a baseball book at the time and so was not in Philadelphia that night. He had interviewed Nolan Ryan that afternoon and watched the game with star baseball writer Tim Kurkjian in Feinstein’s hotel room.

“I did jump off the bed when Laettner made the shot. I will admit that,” Feinstein told SN. “But the funny story was, that Monday, I got a call from a Charlotte radio station wanting to know if I would come on their show and explain why I’d been seen hugging Krzyzewski and Laettner on the court after the game. And I know exactly who their source was.”

One of Duke’s prime recruits at the time – a rare in-state prospect for the Devils to pursue – was at prom. Jeff Capel was a junior at South View High in Fayetteville, and they picked the wrong night to schedule their big dance.

“It was a horrible date because I left and found – it was at a hotel, I think it was a Holiday Inn, and they had a hotel bar, and I just kind of went in and watched the game,” Capel said. “I didn’t watch the whole game. Obviously, back then, there were no cell phones, so you can’t follow it. But periodically I would leave and say I’m going to the bathroom and I would sneak a peek, just trying to see the score. And once it got to under four minutes of regulation, I’m like: I’m watching this. I left my date and stayed and watched the rest of the game.”

It was one of those events in sports you remember where you were when you watched, and if you happened to be watching from inside the Spectrum, you treasure that memory. One imagines the experience was even more profound for those engaged in the competition: the coaches in suits along the sideline, the players wearing white or blue uniforms on the hardwood.

Elmore was directly involved in one of those games that ranks among the greatest in NCAA basketball history, the 103-100 NC State victory over his Maryland squad that, under the rules at the time advanced the Wolfpack to the NCAAs (which they won) and ended Maryland’s season (the Terps declined to compete in the NIT). It’s a pantheon that includes State’s subsequent overtime win over UCLA in the national semifinals, the six-overtime sojourn won by Syracuse over UConn in the 2009 Big East Tournament semifinals and that was joined this past spring by Gonzaga’s buzzer-beating OT win over UCLA at the Final Four.

Having played such different roles in two of the sport’s classics, it is a challenge for him to specify which is the greatest game in college basketball history.

“It’s hard because of the two perspectives: playing in one that you actually lost … And we didn’t have the suddenness. That’s the thing that sticks out in everybody’s mind about Duke-Kentucky: the sudden ending, sudden death, so to speak,” Elmore said. “That game with Duke and Kentucky was somewhat disjointed, but in the end there’s so many different things to look at that you could appreciate and also complain about.

“And when you have all those ingredients, and then the sudden death with two terrific teams and one had to go do with the last shot … from a fan’s standpoint, that had to be the game. You’re left going: Wow.”

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Three decades later, the qualities that defined Krzyzewski on that night have not faded, even as he approaches his 75th birthday in February. If they had, he would not be preparing to launch the pursuit of a sixth NCAA championship, perhaps a 13th Final Four or another 30-win season. UCLA’s John Wooden retired at 65. North Carolina’s great Dean Smith left the game at 66. K’s college coach and first boss in the game, Bob Knight, was 68 when he closed his final act, at Texas Tech.

“I think it’s his competitiveness more than anything,” Elmore said. “He doesn’t want to lose, and he will pull out all the stops, which would include motivating his players, coming up with some novel ideas. And let’s face it: He’s always had, for the most part, the best talent, and that’s an ingredient you can’t overlook. It all begins with amassing the best talent. We could say the same thing about John Wooden, as great a coach as he was.

“Mike’s teams were always well-prepared. There was a cohesiveness about his great teams that not a lot of people could parallel, even other national championship winners. They were almost as, but there was something about the cohesiveness, the chemistry, of some of those Duke teams that won.

“Mike will do everything he can to win the game, and that would include, if he needed to, intimidating refs. Which I know he did. It’s hard to tell in Cameron, because his back was to the camera. But you know he’s working these guys. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s part of that competitiveness.”

That quality has persisted throughout his professional life. When Brey and Amaker were Duke assistants, they would take turns driving to Pizza Hut to grab some pies on the way to Krzyzewski’s home late at night to break down the tape of the game they’d just won or lost (but mostly won).

“A 7:30 game, you’re at his house at 10:30 and start the film and we would go until the wee hours,” Brey said. “He’s got the clicker in his chair and, jump ball, Alaa Abdelnaby doesn’t win the jump ball, he’d freeze it – ‘You know what? What was wrong with Alaa tonight?’ And we’d go 25 minutes on Alaa Abdelnaby’s psyche. It was just thorough.

“There were nights – I should say mornings – where we came out of there and the Durham Morning Herald paper was at the end of his driveway, and I would throw it back up toward the house. It was already delivered.

“There’s a unique drive there, and focus. Not a lot of distractions, not going to go play golf. Hell, he didn’t even drink wine when I was with him.”

There is more to Coach K, though, than his preternatural drive to win. There is the surpassing cognizance of all that is transpiring around him. At the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, where legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe was to be inducted to the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Krzyzewski fielded a question from Ryan during a press conference but, before responding, made sure to congratulate him on that honor.

This gift, perhaps insistence, on being aware of what matters to Duke, to college basketball, to the sport in general was evident on that night in Philadelphia. In the moments after that breathtaking game and its delirious finish and the obvious consequence of advancing to a sixth Final Four in seven years – where the Devils would, indeed, become the first repeat champion since UCLA in 1973 – Krzyzewski quickly made his way to the position where Kentucky’s radio network was broadcasting.

Cawood Ledford, who had begun calling UK games in 1953, had announced 1991-92 would be his final season at the microphone. That meant, since Laettner’s shot dropped and Duke was moving on, this would be Ledford’s final game. Krzyzewski filtered through all the wonderful implications for his Blue Devils and realized this was it. So he asked to borrow a headset and joined Ledford just as he was executing his final game sign-off. He complimented the Kentucky players and their performance and concluded with, “And thank you, for a great career for you.”

“For some reason, that struck me – for someone to have the presence of mind to do that after that kind of win, when there were a million other things you could have on your mind, for him to do that kind of captured who he is,” Bilas said. “I get fans, and I don’t expect anybody that doesn’t wear dark blue to like him. I get that. You look at him patrolling the sidelines or jumping on officials or whatever you want to say, that’s fine. That’s the way the world is. And I have no problem with any of that.

“But that, to me, showed who he is. I was stunned by that. I’ve always remembered the compassionate side of him and having a unique understanding of all that this is really about, and what competition really means, and empathy toward others. Because he’s been on the other side of that. Every coach has.”

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