For a moment, at least, it seemed Kentucky had pulled off the upset of the 1992 NCAA Tournament, knocking off reigning national champion Duke at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.
For a moment, at least, it seemed the Wildcats, back in March Madness after two years of NCAA probation, were bound for the Final Four in Minneapolis. The Cats had overcome a 12-point second half deficit with 67 percent shooting after the break to capture a one-point lead in overtime.
For a moment, at least, it seemed the Unforgettables – four UK seniors who had remained loyal to Lexington despite the reality of sitting out two Big Dances – were to have their loyalty rewarded. Duke had to go the length of the court – in 2.1 seconds. The defending champs had, quite literally, one last shot.
But in a moment the narrative shifted. Grant Hill heaved the ball some 75 feet, Christian Laettner caught it, shimmied to his right, turned over his left shoulder, and fired a 15-foot jumper. The Shot dropped. Duke won 104-103.
In what some consider the greatest college basketball game ever played, The Shot propelled Duke to its fifth consecutive Final Four and, eventually, back-to-back national titles. The Shot also sent a weary, weepy-eyed yet resilient group of Wildcats back to Lexington.
After the game, Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino urged his players to have perspective.
“Don’t let two seconds determine your basketball life because it’s worth a lot more than that,” Pitino told his squad, though he himself admitted his mind was in a “total fog” following Laettner’s heroics.
Months later, Pitino would stand at Southeastern Conference media days as tip-off of the 1992-1993 neared and reflect on The Game and The Shot.
“It hurt,” Pitino said. “It was probably the most memorable and exciting loss a team could have.”
So much so, in fact, that Pitino ordered a recruiting video that recapped the play. The highlight tape ended, however, with Laettner’s shot frozen in air, an undeniable sign that Kentucky’s program would neither be defined nor deterred by a loss. Rather, it would serve as fuel, energy to return Kentucky to its place atop the college basketball mountaintop.
“We want to put it behind us, but we don’t want to forget it, either,” senior guard Dale Brown said of The Shot. “We want to pick up where we left off. We want to beat Duke in the regional final, beat Indiana in the Final Four, and beat Michigan in the championship game.”
Kentucky entered the 1992-93 season ranked #5 in the pre-season AP poll and with a bona fide star in 6-8 forward Jamal Mashburn, a fearless floor general in Travis Ford, and a heralded recruiting class led by junior college transfer Rodney Dent and high school All-American Tony Delk.
And Pitino’s crew quickly delivered on the hype. The Wildcats stormed out to an 11-0 record that included victories over #13 Georgia Tech, #9 Louisville, and #4 Indiana. That pushed Kentucky to the top of the AP poll.
For Kentucky, The Shot had its hoped-for effect. It galvanized. It sharpened. It ignited.
Kentucky finished the regular season 23-3 and won the SEC Tournament over LSU. As a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky dispatched Rider in the opening round, dropped Utah by 21 in the second round, and clobbered Wake Forest 103-69 before downing Florida State 106-81 to reach the program’s 10th Final Four and its first since 1984.
“We’re very excited about our basketball team,” Pitino said as the national semifinal tilt against Michigan and its Fab Five approached. “We’re playing very good basketball and that’s what you want going into this.”
Though the Wildcats would lose an overtime heartbreaker to Michigan 81-78 in the national semifinals, they had proven their mettle and taken another step in their reclamation project.
“We’re proud of Kentucky,” Pitino said after the loss.
Just as he and the Bluegrass State should have been. After losing The Game to Duke on The Shot, Kentucky had assured the country it remained as potent by delivering a memorable Final Four run.
And with that, the blueblood was back.