ATLANTA – Dozens of game-winning shots have fallen during the 75-year history of the NCAA Tournament, some of them highly unforgettable.
Indiana topped Syracuse in the 1987 title game on Keith Smart’s jumper with four seconds left. North Carolina State accomplished the improbable in ‘83 by beating Houston when Lorenzo Charles steered a Dereck Wittenberg air ball into the basket as time expired. Who hasn’t seen Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew knock off Mississippi 100 times during this tournament as his buzzer-beater from 1998 made its way into an omnipresent commercial.
But a fan vote determined that the NCAA moment that outranks all others belongs to Angola native Christian Laettner, whose buzzer-beating turnaround jumper off a three-quarter court pass lifted Duke to a 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final.
“For it to be voted on as the most memorable play in the history of the NCAA in 75 years, I can’t even put into words how much it means to me, how much it means to my family, my parents, my wife and my children,” Laettner said during a news conference here Friday. “My children don’t know much about it because I don’t tell them anything about it. I don’t ever put the Kentucky game on and make them watch. But whenever my dad is in town, he sneaks in, grabs the DVD, grabs them, makes them watch a little bit.
“Just a very proud moment. I’m honored. And for today’s generation to still vote me in that play as the most memorable is just an unbelievable feeling.”
As Laettner went on to note, the frenzied end to regulation and the wild exchange of baskets late in overtime set the stage. Duke led by 12 in the second half only to see the Wildcats rally. The lead changed hands five times in the final 31.5 seconds of OT. Kentucky appeared to have the game won when Sean Woods scored with 2.1 seconds left. The Blue Devils called time and coach Mike Krzyzewski set up a play they’d had at their disposal all season, one they’d used without success late in the regular season but practiced repeatedly thereafter. It called for Grant Hill to make the long pass to the foul line, with Laettner moving from the wing to the line to make the reception.
“The play was called ‘home run,’ ” Laettner said. “We ran it three weeks earlier in Wake Forest. ... Grant threw a curveball, it kind of went out of bounds. Between the Wake Forest game and the Kentucky game we practiced in practice. Grant worked at passing, I worked at my last-second shot. During practice, I would shoot with my big-man coach. He would say, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I would have to run the court, run to the key, hit my last-second shot. We all practiced it, so Coach K said, ‘Go out and run it. Good luck.’
“After that, it was just instincts and reaction, which is what basketball is. And we got lucky enough for the ball to go through the hole. ... I don’t know if it happens, if it’s voted the most memorable play with the entirety of the situation – how good Kentucky played, how much of an underdog team they were that night.”
Laettner said the most memorable NCAA moment of his youth involved a play he never saw live – the Charles dunk that decided the ‘83 title.
“I was so sure Phi Slamma Jamma was going to win that night I went to a WWE event that night in Buffalo and I watched Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka jump off the ropes instead of watching that game because everybody was sure that Houston was going to win,” he said. “When the WWE event was over, I jumped in the car with my dad. I said, ‘Who won?’ He said, ‘N.C. State won.’ We thought he was lying to us the whole 45-minute drive home. We were calling him a liar. When we saw the news, N.C. State won, we couldn’t believe it. That is the most vivid play in my TV-watching memory before I started playing on the big stage.”