The Greatest Game Ever Lost Twenty-five years after The Shot stunned Kentucky, those on the wrong side of history have learned to live with it

By Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com

Once upon a time, in a land called the NCAA tournament, there was a game between Duke and Kentucky. Not a game, really. An epic. It was a clash of wills that grew more extraordinary with each passing minute until -- after an overtime and five lead changes in the last 31 seconds -- it became legend.

Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper, a last twist of fate that took the final 2.1 seconds off the game clock, won the game for Duke, 104-103.

Could that really be 25 years ago?

But this story is not about Laettner. It's not about Duke. This is about the ones Laettner beat that night, especially the seniors whose careers he ended.

When you give everything you’ve got, it ain’t supposed to end like that.” -- Sean Woods

The Wildcats of 1992 have wrestled for 25 years with the mixed feelings of being part of perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever played -- and losing it. It is bittersweet, with a capital B.

The game lives on, yes. But the ending never changes.

And always, there's the lingering question:

What if Laettner had missed?

Looking back, 25 years later

The golf course co-owner

Deron Feldhaus with his son, Jake, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY, January 2017.

The white clubhouse of Kenton Station Golf Course looks out over the Kentucky countryside, on the edges of Maysville. It seems a million miles from the bright lights of the NCAA tournament. It is, certainly, a long way from that game.

But the man sitting inside who helps run the course remembers March 28, 1992 in the Philadelphia Spectrum.

Oh, yes he does.

“This time of year, it seems like every time you turn the TV on, they’re showing it. It’s getting ready to pick up,” Deron Feldhaus says of the 25th anniversary. “If I’m around somewhere and it comes on, people look at me. I try to look away. I’ve seen it so many times.”

He knows what the replay will show. Laettner catching the 75-foot inbounds pass from Grant Hill, with two Kentucky players flanking each shoulder. Laettner taking one dribble to his right, then spinning back to his left, turning, shooting, scoring, assuring the game a spot in the pantheon of the sport. The two defenders, warned by their coach Rick Pitino not to foul Laettner, backing away, wary of contact.

One of them puts his hands straight up. That is Deron Feldhaus.

“I had a great view. I challenged him, turned around, the shot was dead on,” he says. “You’re so close. One possession away. You had it right there within reach. But my thought on the whole thing is, I know I gave everything and my teammates gave it everything they had. That’s the attitude I’ve carried since then.

“I guess it’s good to be remembered that you played in that game. I’d rather be remembered for scoring 27 against Shaq when we beat LSU. But it’s not going to top the Laettner shot, when you’re guarding him, when your face is right there.”

The assistant coach

John Pelphrey, now an assistant coach at Alabama, was a SENIOR FORWARD AT KENTUCKY IN 1992.

Alabama is preparing for its next game, but sure, Crimson Tide assistant coach John Pelphrey has a few moments. He knows what’s coming. Always happens when the NCAA tournament nears, and the 25th anniversary figures to be even worse.

The other Wildcat guarding Laettner in that moment of truth, backing away as Laettner turns? John Pelphrey.

“I am surprised it has such an effect and become one of those moments in time in sports, where everyone kind of knows where they were,” he says. “It was Kentucky-Duke. It was Pitino and Krzyzewski. There was a national championship team that was star-studded. As good a college basketball player as ever played the game. Bobby Hurley. Grant Hill. Movie-type stuff for their careers. And there’s just something magical about the NCAA tournament. Then the game itself was such a performance, a bunch of guys playing at a really high level. It didn’t seem like anybody was bothered by the magnitude or pressure of the game. It just kept going, and going and going.”

You have moments like that, where you can get back in the moment very, very quickly. I don’t think that’ll ever change." -- John Pelphrey

And going. Pelphrey headed for Europe to play not long after. One day he looked up at the TV in Spain -- or was it France? -- and, yep, there was Laettner scoring over him again. The very last second Pelphrey would be a Kentucky Wildcat.

“I was just amazed I could go to, I felt like, the other side of the world, and I can’t get away from it. That’s been the trend ever since. It’s something that’s become part of the fabric. It’s just one of those things, everybody was captivated by it.

“Initially it’s hard to get out of your head. It’s meaningful. Something was lost that you held very near and dear to your heart. That wasn’t just another jersey. It was a special piece of cloth. A complete love affair between us and that university. That just doesn’t go away after the horn sounds, that takes some time.

“I’ll never forget when I went back for tryouts with the Philadelphia 76ers, I hadn’t thought about it one time when I got on the plane to fly to Philadelphia, until we’re about ready to land and I look out the window and I saw the Spectrum. And it just flooded back into my mind and my heart and my soul. So you have moments like that, where you can get back in the moment very, very quickly. And I don’t think that’ll ever change. I think there’ll be things that trigger those types of memories and emotions that are kind of an imprint on us.”

The almost hero

Sean Woods, one-time head coach at morehead state, PUT KENTUCKY AHEAD OF DUKE IN THE 1992 classic WITH AN IMPROBABLE BANK SHOT IN Overtime.

Sean Woods is a busy man. A former head coach at Morehead State, he is trying to get back into the game in some capacity. But yeah, he’ll reminisce.

He was the Wildcat, of course, whose shot in traffic banked in with 2.1 seconds left to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead. The basket that knocked out Duke, shook the college basketball world and made him a Kentucky icon forever.

Almost.

“It’s something not only I will never forget, it’s something that most people in the state of Kentucky won’t forget,” he says. “Just the whole situation. How we got there, the guys I played with, how you get to the pinnacle. When you’re playing in a game like that, you don’t think about the outcome, you’re just in the moment. As you get older, you appreciate it more.

“Pat Riley said something to us one time when he came to visit us my senior year. He said man’s biggest fear is fear of extinction. Fear of going through life and not having a significant impact on something or someone. And for us to be remembered as well as we are, that means that we did something. To go to a university that is one of the most historical places, for us to be part of that history and one of the top teams in the history of that school means a lot to all of us.”

But?

“When you give everything you’ve got, it ain’t supposed to end like that.”

That line might be the most fitting legacy for the Kentucky Wildcats of 1992. They had given so much, especially the seniors. This was just after some of the program’s darkest hours, too; a scandal and probation that threatened to make basketball in Lexington irrelevant. “Kentucky’s Shame,” was the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The making of a classic

Rick Pitino was a 39-year-old head coach at Kentucky in 1992.

Pitino had arrived on campus as an eager new coach with revival in mind, if only he could find some true believers. He found them in Feldhaus, Pelphrey, Woods and Richie Farmer, a class who stayed through the turmoil, out of loyalty to Kentucky in general and Pitino in particular.

Pitino: “Those were the players left behind that nobody wanted as transfers. They were Kentucky kids -- except Sean was an Indiana kid -- and they were going to stick it out. They went from being out of shape, overweight in some areas and not playing many minutes to being stars and being recognized as four great guys.”

They were to be the bridge to better times. Turned out they were more than a bridge. Bolstered by new talent such as Jamal Mashburn, Dale Brown and Travis Ford, they became a force as seniors, with deep belief and the special bond that athletes can forge from coming through adversity together.

It was a feel-good story, then, when the Wildcats put together a 26-6 regular season and ended up a No. 2 seed. It got better when they showed up in the East region final, having beaten Massachusetts and its own young coach named John Calipari. But that was supposed to be it. Duke would shut down the ride. Duke, with its coach already building a Hall of Fame resume, its lineup already renowned, seeking a repeat championship that nearly everyone expected.

We didn’t get to that point just by hoping and wishing. Coach pushed us to the brink, and it paid off." -- Woods

But what happened ... well, let several Kentucky voices tell it.

Pelphrey: “For us, that season was a culmination. A lot of a heavy lifting went into it. This guy [Pitino] started encouraging and developing and inspiring and building dreams and all of sudden we were doing things we didn’t even know we could do, let alone the outside world.”

Ford: “There was so much on the line. You had two of the best basketball programs in the country going at each other. One who was supposed to be there and supposed to just run us over, and the other who has been on probation and wasn’t even supposed to be in that position, I think all that adds to it. Obviously the ending makes it historic.”

Woods: “Most people thought we were underdogs in pretty much every big game we played in. We thought we were just as good or better as anybody else. We didn’t get to that point just by hoping and wishing. Coach pushed us to the brink, and it paid off."

Feldhaus: “Our philosophy was try to wear people down. I remember, a friend was on the team bus to the Duke game, he said, what do you think? I told him point blank. `I think we can do it.’ Every time I see him I’m reminded of this. But that comes from Coach Pitino. He had us believing.”

A tense game turns UK's way

That belief would be tested. Duke seemed to be inexorably taking command with a 67-55 lead and just over 11 minutes left. Pitino had not used Kentucky’s trademark pressure man-to-man defense much, out of fear of foul trouble. That was about to change during a timeout.

Pelphrey: “He said, 'That’s it. Now it’s time, we’re going to do what we’ve been doing all year long. We’re going to press, we’re going to play man and we’re going to let it rip right here.’

“Whatever that guy told us, we believed. It could have been sunny and sandy outside and he could tell us it’s going to snow like you’ve never believed and we all would have grabbed our heavy coats and gloves and put our boots on. That’s the way it was.”

So Kentucky attacked, the lead melted, and Duke’s frustration grew, which was clear to all when Laettner planted his right foot on the chest of a prone Wildcat, Aminu Timberlake. Technical foul. Some thought then, and still do, that it should have been an ejection.

The Kentucky rally could not be stopped; by Laettner's right foot or anything else. The score went from 79-69 to 81-81 in just over two minutes. From there, the night turned into a torrent, as Pitino called it, “of one great offensive play after another.” The two teams would combine to shoot 63 percent the last 25 minutes. Pitino once said: “It was like being in Carnegie Hall and just seeing the best musician or the best singer, and just sitting there in amazement at what they were doing out on the basketball court.”

When your guys play way over their heads, your best guy fouls out and you still have a chance to win, you’ve got to be really proud of what they accomplished. We played a perfect game." -- Rick Pitino

A Feldhaus putback sent the game into overtime, tied at 93. From there, Kentucky led 96-93 and 98-96. Duke tied both times. In the last 31 seconds, it was 100-98 Duke, then 101-100 Kentucky, then 102-101 Duke (as Mashburn fouled out with 28 points). That left under 10 seconds left, Woods with the ball.

He looked for no help, slicing into the lane from left to right, then launching a one-handed half-hook with Laettner in his face. When it banked in, the king was dead, right?

Woods: “I was always the playmaker. I was known for and good at getting people the ball. At this particularly time, it was just my time to go get a shot.”

Verne Lundquist on the CBS broadcast: “How did he find the courage to take that kind of shot?”

Feldhaus: “He had been in that situation many a time. He was going to shoot the ball. One time we were down three and he went in and shot a layup. There were a few of us who were open, but what a shot he hit. It seemed like that shot was in the air forever.”

A crushing blow

Christian laettner and duke teammate grant hill teamed up on one of the most famous passes in basketball history.

If only it had taken 2.1 seconds longer to come back down. But Duke still had one chance, no matter how small it seemed. During timeout, Pitino dictated his strategy. He had seen Clemson guard Connecticut’s inbounds passer in this situation in the 1990 tournament, and the Huskies had tossed long to Tate George for the game-winner. He had watched that replay several times, so he decided to have no one guarding Hill on the throw-in, but instead double-team Laettner.

Pitino: “A lot of people think we made a mistake not putting somebody on the ball. A lot of coaches don’t put a guy on the ball and they win games. I’ve seen it work both ways. The mistake we made was we said, 'We know it’s going to him, whatever you do, don’t foul him.' So both players who were sandwiching Christian Laettner froze. They didn’t get off their feet to challenge the shot. I think if I had it to do it all over again, it wouldn’t have anything to do with putting a guy on the ball. You’ve got to bat that ball down. All I said was don’t foul the guy.”

Feldhaus: “He said it more than once. I think that was probably the last thing he said. We just played soft, that was the bottom line. We should have been more aggressive. What do you do?”

Foul him maybe?

Feldhaus: “No, he would have made them. That guy had ice in his veins.”

Pelphrey: “I’m not sure that had any bearing on our aggressiveness. But looking back on it, if you had a chance to do it over you can always say maybe I’ll go at it a little bit harder. But obviously, hindsight is 20-20.

“But I’m rolling with that guy [Pitino] in that situation every single time.”

The world knows what happens next. The pass, the shot, the dazed look on even the Duke faces. Eventually Mike Krzyzewski walked over to the Kentucky broadcast team, asked for the microphone and told the Wildcat listeners how much he respected the team his Blue Devils had just beaten.

The box score portrays a classic. How Kentucky shot 57 percent, had 24 assists on 37 field goals and still lost. How Laettner had taken 20 shots -- 10 from the free-throw line and 10 from the floor -- and not missed any.

Herb Sendek, then a Wildcat assistant coach and now head coach at Santa Clara: “Even if you’re by yourself just shooting around in an empty gym, and you’re a really good shooter, you tend to miss one. Let alone in that pressure crucible, to be perfect. But that’s what it took to beat Kentucky that night.”

That’s probably the most vivid memory I have of that day; just the devastation. Probably the most down locker room I ever saw." -- Travis Ford

What the world did not see was the pain in the Wildcats' locker room, or Pitino pull out the Sports Illustrated cover of years before to remind his players how far they had come.

Ford, then a player and now Saint Louis coach: “That’s probably the most vivid memory I have of that day; just the devastation. Probably the most down locker room I ever saw. I remember Coach Pitino went to his briefcase and brought out the Sports Illustrated article -- I don’t think he had it planned by any stretch -- and the front was talking about Kentucky shame and the probation and how we’d never come back from that. That game, even though it was a loss, signified that Kentucky basketball was back. That game put us back on the map.”

Pitino: “It was the first year off probation, and they go from that to one of the great games played in college basketball history. I told them it was a quite an achievement what they accomplished, don’t hang their heads. They were going to look back on this and know it was quite special.”

Woods: “He was doing his best to comfort us. But at that particular time there was nothing he could do or say, because we were so hurt. But as the days went by, you started to realize the accomplishment, where you started at and where you ended, and that was good. Still is today.”

Pelphrey: “Having my career end, the loss was painful, but the reason the loss was painful was bigger than the game. It’s because we didn’t get the chance to put that jersey on again.”

Sendek: “They had built the bridge moving forward. So the emotion of those guys in the locker room after the game is unforgettable. Words can’t describe it. Even though it was Kentucky, we were David. We weren’t Goliath at that point.”

Learning to live with The Shot

laettner nailed a turnaround jumper as time ran out to beat uk, 104-103, on march 28, 1992.

There were several postscripts. The most heartfelt came soon after; the day the jerseys of Farmer, Feldhaus, Pelphrey and Woods went up in Rupp Arena. The Unforgettables, they were called. It didn’t matter they had not made it to the Final Four. They had stayed the course, and helped save Kentucky basketball.

Feldhaus: “You walk in Rupp Arena -- I took my son -- and you look up there and see your jersey, there’s not a better feeling in the world. There’s not too many up there. One of the top two or three programs in the country and your jersey’s hanging up there. That is a special thing.”

Still, the hurt would take a while to ease.

Sendek: “When the two national semifinals came on the next week, I went to the movies. I didn’t even want to be tempted to turn the TV on. I just wanted to get some distance. I just sat there and ate popcorn so I wouldn’t be around the television.”

Feldhaus: “I’ve watched that game one time. That’s it. But time flies. I’ve got a nine-year-old son, and he’s starting to understand the game pretty well. I will sit down with him some time and have to struggle through watching that game. But I’m going to do it for him.”

Feldhaus and Laettner appeared together years later at a fund-raiser. Feldhaus was hesitant to go. He doesn’t crave the spotlight, but he decided to attend.

“He eats it up,” he says of Laettner. “I didn’t have to do much talking. He hasn’t changed much.”

So the player who did the guarding did not get on that well with the player who did the shooting?

“He’s not a guy I want to hang out with, I’ll promise you that.”

Something else Kentucky gained from the defeat.

Ford: “We learned a lot. We went to the Final Four the next year. So the guys returning took a lot out of the game, as devastating as it was. It became a positive when we got back to that point, finishing it off.”

Yes, the younger Wildcats came back and got to the Final Four in 1993. Pitino went on to a couple of national championships. But there’s always the question for the seniors, who had no other chances.

What could have been

What if Laettner had missed?

What if they had not been so careful about fouling? Maybe Kentucky goes on to the Final Four and defeats Indiana, a team it had already beaten. Maybe the Wildcats then beat Michigan’s Fab Five. Maybe the Unforgettables go out as national champions, not epic victims. Maybe.

What if?

I think the thing for me today I’ve been able to realize that my life and my career wouldn’t necessarily be any better regardless. I don’t believe that [they would have been]. I think it was a wonderful journey." -- Pelphrey

“For the first couple of weeks, maybe a month, when you invest that much you feel almost like you’re owed something," Pelphrey says. "As you get older and you have kids and you have a job and do different things, you start to understand that emotion and expectations are really bad things to have. You need to play with emotion but you don’t need to be emotional.

“We absolutely went through that. Why not? Why did it have to go in? What would it have been like? We could have gone to the Final Four and had to play Indiana. That wasn’t like that was going to be a walk in the park, either. Then you have the Fab Five. A lot of matchups we probably didn’t want to be a part of, and that was probably one of them. Sooner or later, it had the potential for there to be a disappointment.

“For a brief moment in time we had those thoughts of what if, but we quickly came to realize that this is part of it, we’ve got to handle it. We’ve got to be a champion in all circumstances, and this one, too.”

What if?

Woods: “My picture would have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“Just the fact I’d get another chance to play two more games in the Final Four. And we’re national champions. There’s a difference being national champions and just being a part of one of the greatest college basketball games ever.

“But a lot of people wish they could be a part of something like that. I’m gratified. We were some lucky young men. We weren’t prima donnas. But every accolade we got, we earned every bit of it.”

What if?

Pitino: “The Kentucky fans anguish over it, not me. I thought it was such a great game. It was so well played, so you had to appreciate that. If your guys don’t play well, they don’t execute, it’s not their night, you kind of anguish over it. When your guys play way over their heads, your best guy fouls out and you still have a chance to win, you’ve got to be really proud of what they accomplished. We played a perfect game. That was a dream come true to be in that situation.”

Sendek, on Pitino second-guessing himself over being so cautious about guarding Laettner: “At the end of the day Grant Hill made the perfect pass, Christian Laettner caught the ball and capped off a perfect night. Had Coach not uttered those words [not to foul], would they have been more aggressive? Would history have changed? We’ll never know that. That’s almost an exercise in futility, beating yourself up over that.”

Twenty-five years later, the moment lingers. “If there’s a Mount Rushmore of tournament moments, it’s got to be there,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA senior vice president of basketball. “To this day, I still hear Kentucky and Duke fans talking about it. People still remember it like it was yesterday.”

The winners always will. The losers, too.

Twenty-five years is a long time. I don’t know if there will ever be a time it fades. Back a few years I probably would have wished it did, but now I hope not." -- Feldhaus

So on this 25th anniversary, we go back to the man in the white clubhouse, on a quiet golf course in Kentucky, who one day will turn on that tape and explain to his son what it was like to be playing at a moment college basketball will never forget.

Feldhaus: “Twenty-five years is a long time. I don’t know if there will ever be a time it fades. Back a few years I probably would have wished it did, but now I hope not. If it can last 25 years, I think it can handle longer. Being part of that game, it is something special, even though I was guarding the guy who hits the shot right in front of you, which is kind of hard to take."

What if?

“The way that turned out, I don’t think it would have been a lot of change. We had our jerseys retired. In the state of Kentucky, we’re still considered one of the top teams the fans liked. If we would have won that game, I don’t think it would have probably gone down as one of the best games ever, because it wouldn’t have been won in the last second.”

Still, at the end of the day, Lattener could have missed, right?

“I wouldn’t have minded that," Feldhaus says, "at all.”

****

Credits: Video, courtesy NCAA On Demand. Laettner, courtesy NCAA Photos. Felldhaus, courtesy Leo McKay. Pelphrey, courtesy University of Alabama. Woods, courtesy Morehead State. Pitino, courtesy NCAA Photos. Laettner and Hill, courtesy NCAA Photos.

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