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Elite Eight Battle Between Duke and Kentucky in 1992 was a Classic Thriller

Posted on March 24, 2022 by Chris Kent

I

t was a game that epitomized March Madness. The 1992 East Regional Final of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament between Duke and Kentucky was as thrilling a game as one can imagine. Basketball pundits and fans everywhere witnessed a game for the ages. It was an instant classic packed with as much drama as a play on broadway in New York City.

Actually, it was played in Philadelphia, PA at The Spectrum and featured the east region’s top two seeds. On Saturday March 28, 1992, the Blue Devils and the Wildcats battled in a game that is remembered as a theatrical masterpiece. Veteran broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Len Elmore called the game for CBS Sports and did a masterful job. With a trip to The Final Four on the line, the two nationally ranked powers went back-and-forth much of the game leading up to a frantic, thrilling, and dramatic finish.

Having just fallen behind by one point on a Kentucky basket after which they used their final timeout with 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Duke inbounded the ball under the Wildcats’ basket. Sophomore forward Grant Hill prepared to make the long inbounds pass which was nearly the full length of the court. The call by Lundquist sounded like this:

“There’s the pass to Laettner…puts it up…(Buzzer sounds) Yessssssssssss!

Hill’s long inbounds pass was caught by 6-11 senior forward/center Christian Laettner just outside the top of the foul line where he made a turnaround jumper as time expired. Echoes of Lundquist’s call have lingered on for decades since this fabled play.

Christian Laettner makes a turnaround shot to beat the final buzzer lifting Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Championship Game of the NCAA Tournament. The win sent the Blue Devils to their fifth straight Final Four. Click on the above photo to watch a replay of this full game, one of the best basketball games ever played.

Ecstasy resulted for the Blue Devils while Kentucky was left in anguish. Laettner’s basket, a swish, lifted Duke to an improbable 104-103 win and sent the Blue Devils to The Final Four for the fifth straight year. Wildcat senior forwards John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, each standing 6-7, defended Laettner on the final play. Pelphrey made a reach for the ball before backing off to avoid fouling for Kentucky. Feldhaus was closer and raised both arms up on Laettner as he took the epic shot.

Duke went on to beat Michigan and their fabled Fab Five, 71-51 in Minneapolis, MN to win the national championship for the second straight year. In doing so, the Blue Devils became the first team to repeat as national champions since UCLA in 1973.

Laettner’s game-winning shot was preceeded by the Wildcats’ own clutch shot. With 7.8 seconds left, Kentucky called its’ final timeout. Sean Woods, a 6-2 senior guard, then took the inbounds pass from the side near half court. Woods drove down the center of the lane and hit a high arching bank shot over the outstretched arms of Laettner. That gave the Wildcats a 103-102 lead.

“How did he find the courage to take that kind of shot,” Lundquist said.

“You know, it went in, okay,” Elmore said. “But that was a terrible shot. And by terrible I mean, here he is working against a 6-11 guy, not your highest of percentage shots,” Elmore added. “But as I mentioned, it goes in. What can you say?”

Whatever Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said to his team after this play worked. More to the point, Hill and Laettner must of had an unyielding telepathic connection to execute this dramatic pass, catch, and shot so accurately under such high pressure. Laettner’s score, known as “The Shot”, is part of NCAA Tournament lore.

Duke’s Grant Hill threw a near length-of-the-court pass to Laettner who made a difficult catch prior to making the game-winning shot.

So as we reach the 30th anniversary of this epic play and game, it is a perfect game to review and analyze for Sports Then and Now. With the Elite Eight of the 2022 NCAA Tournament approaching this weekend, it is an ideal time to relive this extraordinary game.

Both the Blue Devils and Kentucky had worked their way through the east region of the NCAA Tournament in solid fashion. Each team had won its’ prior three tournament games by double digits and avoided the upset bug. Duke, the No. 1 seed in the east region, had beaten Campbell, Iowa, and Seton Hall. The Wildcats, the region’s No. 2 seed, had defeated Old Domnion, Iowa State, and UMass. The Blue Devils entered the game 31-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country in both the Associated Press and Coaches Polls. Kentucky was 29-6 and ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the Coaches.

Both teams had been in the national rankings all season during which they had long winning streaks adding further spotlight on this game. Duke was No. 1 in the AP Poll all season long while the Wildcats climbed as high as No. 8 during the regular season after checking in at No. 4 in the preseason. The Blue Devils opened the season 17-0 before losing at North Carolina on Feb. 5. Kentucky had winning streaks of five, eight, and seven (twice) games during the season.

Duke had gone 25-2 in the regular season and won the ACC regular season championship at 14-2 to claim the top seed in the ACC Tournament where they beat North Carolina in the championship game. The Wildcats had gone 23-6 in the regular season en route to winning the SEC East Division at 12-4. Kentucky was the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and beat Alabama in the championship game.

Laettner was the most valuble player of the ACC Tournament while sophomore forward Jamal Mashburn of the Wildcats was the MVP of the SEC Tournament. Rick Pitino lead the Wildcats and Krzyzewski lead the Blue Devils, both legendary head coaches who are Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers today. Krzyzewski is still the head coach at Duke in this his 42nd and final season in 2021-22 while Pitino is the head coach at Iona College. This matchup had it all with two high caliber teams performing at an extremely high level.

The game was highly competitive from start to finish. There were clutch scores, precision passes, and gut-wrenching maneuvers to exceute plays. As the game wore on, these kinds of plays became more frequent as the pressure mounted. The biggest lead of the game was 12. There were also twelve lead changes in the game, seven coming in overtime.

Kentucky guard Sean Woods, who had 21 points, drives into the lane.

The Blue Devils won the opening tip and turned it over when Woods stole a pass from Laettner. A 3-pointer from Pelphrey put the Wildcats up 3-0 just 36 seconds into the game. Junior guard Thomas Hill gave Duke a 6-5 lead after converting two shots from the foul line which was the first lead change and first lead for the Blue Devils. Kentucky then went on a 15-6 run to go up 20-12 which would be its’ biggest lead of the game. Pelphrey, Mashburn, and 6-8 sophomore forward Gimel Martinez each hit a 3-pointer in the surge. Duke had trailed by double digits only once during the season which was at Clemson in a game that they came back and won 98-97 on March 4. Again, the Blue Devils responded with an 8-0 run over the next 1:30 to force the first tie of the game at 20-20 with 12:57 left in the first half.

Mashburn’s offensive rebound and lay in on a three-on-one fast break gave the Wildcats a 22-20 lead with 12:30 left. A 3-pointer by junior guard Bobby Hurley on the ensuing possession put Duke back in front at 23-22 with 11:53 left. The Blue Devils stayed in front the rest of the first half with their lead fluctuating from one to seven as Kentucky would not let Duke pull away. Richie Farmer, a 6-0 senior guard, hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 27-27 – the second tie of the game – with 10:00 left. The Blue Devils then went on a 16-9 run to take a 43-36 lead with 3:10 left. During that surge, Laettner converted a layup from Hurley to surpass Houston icon Elvin Hayes as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament history. Duke lead 50-45 at the half.

The Wildcats stayed in the game in the first half by scoring 15 points off 11 Blue Devil turnovers. Kentucky also shot 50 percent from the field. Duke meanwhile shot 72% from the field in the opening half. Laettner had 10 points and 3 rebounds while Mashburn had 11 points and 4 rebounds at intermission.

The second half opened with the Wildcats getting in some foul trouble. About two minutes into the second half, Martinez picked up his fourth personal foul leaving Kentucky thin on the inside. Pelphrey, who already had three personal fouls, replaced him. Making matters worse for the Wildcats was that they were in a drought having converted only one field goal over the last 6:30 bridging the first and second halves. The drought ended when Mashburn scored inside off a lob pass from Woods with about 15 minutes left. The Blue Devils lead 56-51.

A three-point play by senior forward Brian Davis along with 3-pointers by Laettner and Hurley put Duke up 67-55 which was the largest lead of the game with 11:14 left. Hurley’s trey capped the 17-10 Blue Devil run to open the second half.

Deciding he needed to pressure Duke, Pitino and Kentucky turned to a full-court press and made an 8-0 run. A field goal by junior guard Dale Brown cut the deficit to 10. The Wildcats’ press then forced two consecutive Blue Devil turnovers that Mashburn converted into back-to-back 3-pointers. Kentucky had thwarted the Duke run with one of their own and in the process had generated momentum. The Blue Devils now lead just 67-63 at the midway point of the second half.

The game was now getting interesting as neither team was able to pull away. Tension mounted and it was felt among the players. With approximately 8:00 left in the second half, a technical foul was called on Laettner after he stomped on the midsection of Wildcat reserve Aminu Timberlake, a 6-9 freshman forward, who had fallen over while defending Laettner’s move to the basket. Timberlake fouled Laettner on the play as well. Laettner made both of the free throws while Farmer converted one of the two technical foul shots to pull Kentucky within 75-69. A steal by Thomas Hill followed which Hurley converted into a fast break layup for a 77-69 lead with 7:46 left to play in regulation. The ensuing possession saw the Wildcats foul Laettner. It was Kentucky’s 10th team foul putting Duke in the double bonus the rest of the way. Laettner sank both free throws for a 79-69 lead with 7:40 left. The 10-point margin was the final double-digit lead of the game and capped a 12-6 Blue Devil run.

With Duke showing signs of pulling away, the Wildcats responded like gladiators. The ensuing possession saw Mashburn feed Brown who converted a three-point play on the inside cutting the deficit to 79-72. A Laettner field goal put the Blue Devils up 81-72. Mashburn answered with a turnaround jumper over Grant Hill. Kentucky then scored twice off a pair of Duke turnovers to cap a 6-0 run to pull within 81-78 with 6:00 left.

The tension was now building and it was felt everywhere with deafening crowd noise. Neither team would lead by more than three points the rest of the way including overtime. Woods nailed a 3-pointer for an 81-81 deadlock, the first tie since 27-27 in the first half. The Blue Devils regained the lead on two free throws by Thomas Hill before Krzyzewski called a timeout with 5:20 left in regulation.

Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino coaches up forward John Pelphrey on the sideline.

Now it was crunch time. Every possession, decision, and play would be immensely critical. The Wildcats came out of the Duke timeout and knotted the score 83-83 on a bucket by Mashburn, the fourth tie of the game. A pair of free throws by Hurley and a pull up jumper from Thomas Hill put the Blue Devils in front 87-84 with 3:40 left. After a bucket from Feldhaus pulled Kentucky within 87-86, Grant Hill missed a bank shot and Mashburn rebounded. Woods brought the ball up the court where he passed to the corner for Brown who hit a 3-pointer for an 89-87 lead. It was the first lead for the Wildcats since a 22-20 edge in the first half. The basket capped a 17-6 run by Kentucky.

The back-and-forth contest was now in clutch time. Duke immediately responded with Davis dribbling the length of the court and scoring a layup on a goaltending call for an 89-89 tie. Fouls were called on the next two possessions and each team stood in the double bonus. Each team converted both shots, Woods for the Wildcats and Laettner doing so for the Blue Devils. It was now 91-91 with 2:04 left in regulation.

Following Laettner’s pair of free throws, Woods missed a cutting Feldhaus on the ensuing possession and Duke had the ball back with 1:45 left. The Blue Devils inbounded to Hurley who broke the Kentucky press. Duke worked the then 45-second shot clock down to about five seconds and Thomas Hill hit a pull up jumper on the side of the lane as the Blue Devils pulled ahead 93-91 with 1:02 left.

Playing right through the pressure packed tension, the Wildcats brought the ball up. Receiving the ball around the 3-point line, Pelphrey drove down into the baseline area under the basket and put up a shot that Grant Hill partially deflected. Feldhaus gathered the loose ball in the lane and put it in off the glass for a 93-93 tie with 37 seconds left. It was the seventh tie of the game.

Duke immediately inbounded to Laettner who handed off to Hurley who brought the ball up the court. Playing for the last shot of regulation, the Blue Devils worked the clock down. Grant Hill handed the ball to Hurley with 10 seconds left. Hurley then penetrated and shot a leaning jumper at the elbow area of the foul line with four seconds left. It bounced off the back of the rim. Mashburn rebounded the ball, took a dribble, and came to a stop looking for a timeout to be called. Although the horn had sounded, the officials concluded from replays that Pelphrey had signaled for timeout with time remaining on the clock. After conferring with the reply monitors, the officials had eight tenths of a second put back on the clock. After the officials explained the call to both Pitino and Krzyzewski, Kentucky had one last inbounds play which Mashburn threw in. Duke’s Davis deflected the ball out of bounds and regulation time ended. The game went into overtime as the Wildcats did not get a shot off.

As if that was not enough, there was more basketball to be played. A five minute overtime period followed and that was filled with more clutch plays leading up to “The Shot.”

Both teams had seven possessions in overtime. Kentucky scored on four of its’ seven trips while the Blue Devils scored on five of their possessions. After both teams missed shots on their opening possessions, the Wildcats struck first when Pelphrey hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with four minutes left for a 96-93 lead. Following a Thomas Hill steal, Hurley missed a 3-pointer. Grant Hill rebounded it and found an open Hurley who knocked in a 3-pointer forcing a 96-96 tie. It was the eighth tie of the game and 2:41 remained. Pelphrey’s ensuing bucket on a drive down the lane put Kentucky back up 98-96 with 2:12 left in overtime.

Kentucky’s Sean Woods drives and puts up a shot.

The game went back-and-forth in overtime as each team matched the other one shot-for-shot and point-for-point. Duke was up next with Laettner drawing a foul on Mashburn. Laettner calmly made both foul shots and it was 98-98, the ninth and final tie of the game. The Wildcats followed with Woods missing a shot while driving into the lane. The clock read 1:17 left as Laettner grabbed the rebound. The Blue Devils brought the ball over half court and called a timeout with 54.5 seconds left. After inbounding the ball, Duke worked the shot clock down before Brown deflected a Hurley pass out of bounds. With only five seconds left on the shot clock, Laettner took an inbounds pass from Grant Hill along the foul line, There, he pivoted around Mashburn to bank in a field goal putting the Blue Devils up 100-98 with 32.3 seconds left.

Kentucky answered on its’ next possession with Mashburn converting a three-point play after Pelphrey found him on the baseline. The Wildcats now lead 101-100 and Pitino called a timeout with 19.6 seconds left. The ensuing possession saw Mashburn foul out when Laettner drove to the basket and drew contact. Laettner, who entered the game shooting 81 percent from the foul line on the season, went to the foul line where he had made 17 consecutive foul shots and was 8-for-8 thus far in the game. Laettner calmly sanked both free throws. Duke now lead 102-101 with 14.1 seconds left to play. It was still anyones game.

Woods brought the ball over half court and Kentucky called timeout with 7.8 seconds left. The rest is history and of epic proportions. Woods’ high arching bank shot over Laettner was incredible. Yet it was outdone by Laettner’s dramatic heart-pounding buzzer-beater.

Laettner finished with a game-high 31 points to go with seven rebounds and was named to the All-Tournament Team of the East Regional while also securing MVP honors. Laettner did not miss a shot in the game, shooting a perfect 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the foul line. Hurley shot 6-for-12 from the field including 5-for-10 from the 3-point line, dished out a game-high 10 assists, and scored 22 points. Hurley joined Laettner on the All-Tournament Team of the East Regional. The Blue Devils also got 19 points from Thomas Hill, 13 from Davis, and 11 from Grant Hill who also had 10 rebounds. Thomas Hill also added a team-high three steals.

The Wildcats were lead by Mashburn’s 28 points and 10 rebounds while Woods had 21 points. Woods also lead Kentucky with nine assists and three steals. Brown was huge off the bench with 18 points while Pelphrey scored 16 points and added five assists. Masburn and Woods were each named to the All-Tournament Team of the East Regional.

Duke players embrace after beating Kentucky in the Elite Eight en route to repeating as national champs.

In reflecting on this game, the degree of difficulty of each of the final two plays was very high for both teams. Woods had to drive and shoot over Laettner, a much taller player. Laettner, who scored eight of Duke’s 11 points in overtime, had to catch a length of the court pass and turn around to get a shot off. In the end, this game delivered the kind of excitement, suspense, and drama that March Madness is all about. It was quite simply a game that will live on forever in the history of college basketball. It was the kind of game that future generations will be told about.

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