ThisSporting News article was originally published April 4, 2015.
The precise nature of their recollections from that distant night in Philadelphia are of no particular surprise, but the intensity that burns after 20 years is hard to fathom. It was the kind of unscripted entertainment only sports can provide: Heroes made and unmade, championships won, lost, then retrieved.
It was not reality television. It was real. And is to this day.
"It still hurts," says Sean Woods, who played for Kentucky. "We had goals and aspirations to win a national championship, and for it to get busted that kind of way, it was painful."
Says Bobby Hurley, who played for Duke: "I'm still tired. It makes me tired to think about playing in that game."
Where were you on March 28, 1992? You might not know the answer to that question without a bit more information. Better question: Where were you when Christian Laettner hit "The Shot"?
For a generation of college basketball fans, sports fans, it is one of those seminal questions most everyone can answer: At home, in a college dorm, in a bar, in a hotel room. Several thousand fortunate souls were seated in the stands at the Spectrum that Saturday. A few hundred were seated at the courtside press tables. For them, it was work, but it rarely felt like it that night.
In a sense, Woods and Hurley are now where they were then: In college basketball. Woods is head coach at Mississippi Valley State, the best team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Hurley is an assistant coach at Rhode Island, working for his brother, Dan, about to begin another rebuilding project. With 17 other middle-aged men, Hurley and Woods share the distinction of having stepped on the court in what is widely considered to be the Greatest Game Ever Played.
Duke 104, Kentucky 103. In overtime.
The two teams made 60.7 percent of their shots that night. Kentucky rallied from 12 points down to force overtime. UK sophomore Jamal Mashburn fouled out. Laettner was permitted to continue after a transgression that could have gotten him ejected.
Duke had entered the game as newly minted college basketball royalty. Under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils had risen from 11-17 in 1982-83 to a run of five Final Fours in six years that had culminated in 1991 with a stunning NCAA semifinal victory over top-ranked UNLV and Duke's first national championship. Four starters had returned from that team, including the star triumvirate of Laettner at center, Hurley at point guard and small forward Grant Hill.
Kentucky had been resurrected by Rick Pitino from a devastating recruiting scandal that exploded in 1989 and led to the resignation of coach Eddie Sutton and the gutting of the team's roster. When Pitino was hired as coach that June, he was fortunate four players who'd completed their freshman seasons — Woods, guard Richie Farmer and forwards Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey — decided not to abandon the program as so many others had. They did not compete in the NCAA Tournament as sophomores and juniors because the program had been banned from the postseason for two years.
"It's gratifying to be considered a major player in a game they consider the best college game ever," Woods says. "But at the end of the day, we lost it."
It is Laettner's shot that everyone remembers from that game, which decided the championship of the NCAA East Region and delivered a spot in the Final Four to the Blue Devils.
Laettner's shot and immediate display of astonishment have been replayed so many times Kentucky fans still can see Laettner charging toward them in their nightmares, arms and mouth open wide, knees pumping, his moment of ecstasy transformed into 20 years of agony not even two NCAA championships, five Final Fours and regular doses of Anthony Davis have completely erased.
What people in Kentucky recognize, what can't help but haunt Woods just a little, is how close he came to being remembered as the player who hit the incredible shot that ended the Greatest Game Ever Played.
In fact, the basket Woods scored with 2.1 seconds remaining, the half-hook he bounced off the board after a left-to-right drive across the lane, was a far more difficult shot than the one Laettner nailed as the buzzer sounded.
Woods came so close to being a player whose last-second courage forges his name into tournament lore: Ainge, Reed, Edney, Thurman, Drew, Farokhmanesh. For the couple of minutes Duke's timeout lasted and the 2.1 seconds required to complete the Devils' Hill-to-Laettner connection, Woods was in their company. He was at the head of the class.
It is easy to forget Woods scored 21 points and passed for nine assists on that evening. He did not go on to become a professional basketball star, so that shot truly was the apex of his basketball career. It just didn't figure to end so soon afterward.
"The play was a simple pick-and-roll, a play we ran a lot for me to turn the corner, get to the rim, kick out for a 3 or dump down for a layup," Woods says. "That particular play presented every option: Richie on the wing, Feldhaus underneath, Dale Brown on the other side and Pel for a throwback, and then I had my own.
"The deal was, if I can get a situation where I can make a shot, that's what I was supposed to do. I didn't mean to bank it. I wanted to put it on the rim and get a bounce in, or give Dale or Deron a chance to get a rebound because no one was with them. Because of my adrenaline in that situation, I gave it a little more oomph and it hit clean off the backboard and it went in."
You see Woods' shot replayed now only when the game is discussed at length, as it was in the ESPN documentary on the game. Even in The Last Great Game, Gene Wojciechowski's terrific new book celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kentucky-Duke 1992, that shot only merits a page and a half, and a lot of this discussion comprises Duke principles mocking the fact Woods banked it in the goal.
"I was on the ball," Hurley says. "He got me leaning the slightest amount going to his left hand as he was changing direction, and I also got engaged with a ball screen that turned him loose.
"I remember at that point being on the ground and him shooting the shot over Christian — that was probably as well-guarded as you can guard it. When players make straight on bank shots, it's generally not a good sign things are going to go your way."
Not that he'd ever lost many, but Hurley had played in enough basketball games, had seen enough of them as the son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr., to recognize an impossible circumstance. For Duke to traverse nearly 94 feet in 2.1 seconds and somehow place the ball in the goal seemed to be one of those.
"Our first reaction: We were all signaling for a timeout," Hurley says. "So there wasn't a total disbelief, but as you start to run to the huddle, the circumstances hit you. You realize what you're up against, and it's almost like you know.
"Coach K showed another reason why he is as good as he is, because he was able to capture us in that huddle and convince us we could win."
Hurley understood immediately he would not be involved in the play. It made little sense to ask a 6-foot point guard to concoct a shot in so little time because it was unlikely he'd get a clear view of the basket. Although he is the NCAA's career assists leader, it wasn't smart to ask him to throw the inbounds pass because of the likelihood UK would ask a taller defender, perhaps stringy 6-9 freshman Andre Riddick, to block the passer's vision.
"We were fortunate Christian was able to catch it as cleanly as he caught it, in a scoring area," Hurley says. "A lot of things broke our way in that possession."
Of course, the breaks began with Pitino's decision not to put a defender along the baseline to bother Hill. Instead, he had Feldhaus and Pelphrey doubling Laettner, a 6-11 All-American and national player of the year who to that point was perfect on nine field-goal attempts and 10 free throws. He hadn't missed a shot all night (including when he purposefully dropped the sole of his shoe onto the abdomen of UK reserve Aminu Timberlake during a second-half sequence that earned Laettner a technical foul and the enduring enmity of Big Blue Nation).
Hill almost spun the ball out of his right hand, as though he were trying to fire a slider past Barry Bonds, and it traveled the precise distance he'd hoped, high enough for Laettner to grab it on his tiptoes but beyond the reach of Feldhaus and Pelphrey. They challenged the catch, but once the ball was in Laettner's possession, Feldhaus took a no-foul approach and Pelphrey literally backed 3 feet away. Laettner had time and space to fake to his right, dribble once, then spin into the comfortable 17-footer.
"In the timeout I was thinking, coach, hurry up, say what you're going to say, switch everything and we've got two seconds till we celebrate and we're going to the Final Four," Woods says. "Coach Pitino drew it up perfect. He had two guys on the best shooter in the house. We had to switch everything else. It just so happened those guys were afraid to foul, kind of froze a little bit, and Laettner did what he'd been doing all night.
"I remember just sitting in the locker room afterward hurt, devastated. Coach Pitino — it was the first time I had ever seen him break down. He tried to console us, told us not to let this one game dictate your basketball lives."
Yet it did, and it should have. Because for Kentucky, that game launched one of its greatest eras. The Wildcats made the Final Four the next season, then won the championship in 1996 and lost in overtime in the 1997 title game and won again in 1998. For the decade of the 1990s, UK was 31-6 in NCAA Tournament games.
The Blue Devils became the first program to win consecutive championships in nearly 20 years, joining UCLA in the back-to-back club along with Oklahoma State, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Kentucky, of course. Florida has since signed on.
"Playing in a game like that, that's played at such a high level—as a competitor those are the kinds of games you want to be a part of," Hurley says. "It's rewarding to know that game had such an impact on people."
Woods and Hurley still are asked about that night on a routine basis. The result never changes, but the game's impact grows even more profound.