You may think the most important shot taken in college basketball during the final week of March1992 was the one launched by Christian Laettner inside the final 2.1seconds of Duke’s NCAA Tournament Region final victory over Kentucky. Certainly it was the most spectacular, the most impactful and the one that has been replayed millions of times on television and YouTube.
It was a pretty big deal, and many who love college basketball are celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.
For me, though, the most important shot that week was launched by Pitt point guard Sean Miller in the final game of his college career, the last shot he took as a competitive basketball player at any level. He missed. That was part of why it counted for so much.
Allow me to explain. My job during the 1991-92 basketball season was to cover the Pitt Panthers for The Pittsburgh Press. It was my third season on the beat, and Miller was around that season because he’d missed the 1989-90 season with a foot injury. It was quite obvious at the time that he was on his way to becoming a basketball coach, and most likely a coaching star.
He averaged 10.6 points and 6.6 assists per game that season but couldn’t rescue the team from dropping seven of its final 10 and missing the NCAAs. That meant finishing his career in the NIT. The Panthers won a road game at Penn State and advanced to a home game at Fitzgerald Field House on Monday, March 23.
Had they won that game, they most likely would have been shipped to Purdue for the next round of the NIT on the day before I was to be in Philadelphia for the East Region. If they lost badly, though, there was a sense that Pitt athletic director Oval Jaynes might have the fuel he needed to make a coaching change. I would have been forced to stay and cover the search.
As it turned out, Pitt played very competitively but trailed by three points in the final seconds. The Panthers had only enough time to inbound to Miller for him to dribble upcourt and fire a 40-footer that was on line but too strong. It bounced off the rim. I’ll never forget the sightof Miller putting the ball into the air and continuing to run toward the steps down to the Pitt locker room, following its flight as he jogged. When it missed, my trip to Philly was on.
It was a phenomenal four days there, but so much of it fades into the background of the epic 104-103 Duke victory over Kentucky in overtime.
I appreciated every moment of that game. It wasn’t like we got to the end and everyone said: Hey, that was pretty cool. There couldn’t have been many in the building who did not know they were witnessing something extraordinary, one of the great American athletic contests and certainly the best game in college basketball history.
Duke shot 65 percent from the field. Kentucky shot 56.9 percent. Bobby Hurley passed for 10 assists. Kentucky’s Sean Woods passed for nine. Kentucky forward Jamal Mashburn scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Laettner scored 31 points and made every shot he took.
Including the one with the right foot that landed on Aminu Timberlake’s chest.
And especially the one that went through the basket at the far end of the court from where I sat near the Kentucky bench.
In the moments before, Woods had driven from the left wing toward the foul line directly in front of me and threw a sort of half-hook over Laettner’s outstretched arms and I remember distinctly having this thought that that moment: What a great way to end this incredible game.
Mike Krzyzewski had another idea. With 2.1seconds left Duke called timeout and he told the Blue Devils they were going to win the game, then drew up the play that had Grant Hill throw deep to Laettner near the opposite foul line. Laettner leaped, grabbed the ball, took advantage of the retreating UK defense offered by John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, and made the 17-foot turnaround jumpshot.
I honestly don’t remember much that happened afterward. It was a blur. I know I filed my story. I know I was thankful that the phone issues that had crippled so many writers on Thursday night had been resolved in time for my deadline on Saturday evening. And I know I was so jazzed by what I’d been a part of I had no trouble driving all the way home across the Pennsylvania Turnpike that night.
It was a night that changed college basketball history. Duke went on to win its second consecutive national title and Laettner became one of the few players ever to appear in four Final Fours. Kentucky reached the Final Four the following year and by the end of the decade had been in four total and won two NCAA championships. The Wildcats were back as a national power.
With a little bit of luck, I got to be there to see it in person.
Would it be proper to thank Sean for that? After all, he did miss the shot that made it happen for me.