This day in sports history: Christian Laettner stuns Kentucky to become an NCAA legend

Yahoo Sports
(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

Yahoo Sports is digging into the archives, taking a look back at the moments that shaped sports.

NCAA tournament history is littered with iconic moments.

None define the NCAA tournament more than a game-winning shot, a do-or-die bucket that elicits tears from fans of the vanquished while keeping title hopes alive or securing championship glory for the victor.

Think Michael Jordan against Georgetown. Lorenzo Charles against Houston. Bryce Drew against Ole Miss. Kris Jenkins against North Carolina.

College basketball fans don’t need any more context to conjure memories that epitomize the NCAA tournament.

But no shot in the history of the tournament looms larger than an overtime bucket in 1992 at the Philadelphia Spectrum — a play that set in motion a dynasty and canonized the game’s most notorious villain while securing his spot on the short list of the greatest players in tournament history.

Let’s take a look back at Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky on this day 28 years ago.

The setup

The 1992 East Regional final was a battle of basketball royalty. No. 2 seed Kentucky represented one of the greatest basketball programs of all time. The owner of five NCAA championship banners at the time, the program was in a drought and on the other side of three years of NCAA probation, having not claimed a championship since 1978.

The Wildcats, coached by Rick Pitino and led on the court by future NBA All-Star Jamal Mashburn, had cruised through the opening rounds with wins over Old Dominion, Iowa State and UMass.

Top-seeded Duke was a blue blood just hitting its stride. A program that had seen great regular season success and deep tournament runs over the course of decades had just won its first national title the year prior and was eyeing a fifth consecutive Final Four. After vanquishing powerhouse UNLV in the national semifinal and topping Kansas for the 1991 championship, Duke entered the 1991-92 season with a roster full of future NBA players led by senior Christian Laettner as a favorite to cut down the nets again.

The Blue Devils maintained that favorite status as they rolled into that March 28 matchup on the heels of double-digit tournament wins over Campbell, Iowa and Seton Hall.

Other shots have arrived amid higher stakes. But none had a bigger impact on college basketball that Christian Laettner's miracle against Kentucky. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Other shots have arrived amid higher stakes. But none had a bigger impact on college basketball that Christian Laettner's miracle against Kentucky. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

The game and the stomp

Kentucky — 29-6 entering the game — was a force. But it hadn’t seen anything like Duke, which had losses only to ACC rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest on its record.

Duke looked every bit the part of favorite in opening a 12-point first-half lead. But Kentucky cut that lead to 50-45 at halftime before going ahead 89-87 with 2:58 remaining in regulation.

Before Kentucky rallied in the second half, things got ugly. After Duke built its lead back up to nine points, Laettner posted up Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake underneath the basket. Timberlake bumped Laettner as he attempted a layup, forcing a miss but drawing a foul.

Timberlake fell on his back in the paint, and before he could get up, Laettner cemented his villain status with one of basketball’s most infamous moments. He looked down at Timberlake by his feet, picked up his right leg and stomped on Timberlake’s chest.

The stomp drew an immediate whistle for a technical foul and applause from Wildcats players taking joy in Laettner losing his cool. It did not draw an ejection.

Laettner remained in the game to sink a pair of free throws before Kentucky’s technical free throw was awarded.

The decision by officials to allow Laettner to continue playing set up NCAA history.

The shot

With Duke leading 93-91 in the final moments of regulation, Kentucky senior Deron Feldhaus scored an inside bucket that would mark the final points of regulation to force overtime.

Both teams traded buckets in the extra session before Mashburn fouled out with 14.1 seconds remaining. The foul was against Laettner, who hit both free throws to give Duke a 101-100 lead as Mashburn could only watch from the bench with his 28 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Kentucky looked to junior guard Sean Woods with the game on the line. Woods took the inbounds pass after a timeout, drove past Duke point guard Bobby Hurley and sank a layup to put Kentucky up 103-102.

Duke called timeout with 2.1 seconds remaining, desperate to keep its hopes of a repeat alive. With the ball under their own basket, things didn’t look good for the Blue Devils.

After the timeout, an official handed Duke sophomore Grant Hill the ball on the baseline. In what hindsight has shown is one of the biggest coaching blunders of all-time, Hill stood unguarded. Pitino chose to keep all five of his defenders guarding potential pass-catchers.

Hill had an unobstructed look at a three-quarter court pass aimed at Laettner, and uncorked a throw that surely made his football-playing father Calvin proud.

Laettner corralled the pinpoint pass at the free throw line, took one dribble to the right and spun to his left for a prayer. It was answered in the form of the biggest shot in NCAA tournament history.

The horn sounded just before Laettner’s shot sank through the net. Chaos ensued.

Junior Duke guard Thomas Hill immediately wept on the sideline, overcome by the moment. Laettner ran with his arms extended toward the opposite baseline before being mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The impact

History was made. Duke’s fifth straight Final Four ticket was punched with an improbable, dramatic 104-103 victory. Laettner’s status was elevated from Duke great to all-time NCAA icon.

The shot capped a remarkable game from Laettner. He finished 10-of-10 from the floor and 10-of-10 from the line while tallying 31 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Duke went on to beat Indiana in the Final Four and roll Michigan’s Fab Five freshmen for its second straight championship.

A dynasty was in full steam as Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils would go on to tally three more championships in the ensuing decades. Talk of Duke not being able to win the big one was dead and buried.

The game also put an embattled Kentucky program back on the map. Pitino would go on to coach the Wildcats to a championship in 1996, and the program has returned to its past glory, with Tubby Smith coaching it to another championship in 1998 and John Calipari again in 2012.

Other shots have come with higher stakes in the moment. But none have had a bigger impact on the trajectory of college basketball than Laettner’s miracle at the Spectrum.

What to Read Next