- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

When his wife turned on the television the other day, Richie Farmer saw himself on the screen wearing Kentucky blue, 10 years younger, playing in a basketball game against Duke.
"So I sat down and I watched and my boys watched a little while with me," he said. "They were impressed their dad was on TV. But they're 5 and 3, and they lost interest. But I just sat there and kept watching it."
And?
"And," Farmer said, "I cried."
There was a lot of crying that day, too, March 28, 1992, Kentucky vs. Duke in the finals of the NCAA East Region at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Tears of anguish, joy, shock and disbelief, plus a few other emotions people never knew they could feel. Many consider it the greatest college basketball game ever. Ever. A decade later, it won't go away. Not for Richie Farmer nor anyone else who witnessed or participated in it.
Via memory and incessant replays, the images persist especially from the final moments: Sean Woods' drive and off-balance flip over Christian Laettner that banked in to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. The Kentucky players erupting off the bench, an upset victory apparently in hand. Duke's Grant Hill, under his own basket with no one guarding him, lobbing a 75-foot pass to Laettner camped near the opposite foul line. Laettner catching the pass, taking a dribble, turning and shooting as two defenders, intent on not fouling, peeled away. The shot in the air as the buzzer sounds, then dropping through the basket. Duke 104, Kentucky 103. Pandemonium. Tears.
Afterward, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team went on to repeat as national champions, said, "I think we've just been part of history."
Ironically, that very history might have jumped up and bit Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils on Thursday. Playing Indiana in the South Region semifinals at Kentucky's Rupp Arena, Duke was booed from the introductions and throughout the game. Indiana, no great favorite of fans in the state, was raucously cheered. It's difficult to gauge the effect of the crowd on the outcome, but the fact is that Indiana stormed back from a 17-point first-half deficit to win 74-73.
It was a moral victory for Kentucky fans, perhaps even retribution, but only a temporary salve. The pain of 10 years ago will never be eased entirely.
"When [Laettner] hit that shot again, it still hurt," said Farmer, who works as a financial adviser in Manchester, Ky., and celebrated the birth of his third child last week. "I don't know if I'll ever get over it."
Woods, who lives in Lexington and does a Kentucky postgame show on radio, said he has gotten over it. Sort of.
"I've kind of gotten used to it now," Woods said. "But it still hurts. It used to hurt real deep. Not too many nights go by where I don't think, 'What if?' Especially during this time of year."
On the flip side is what the game means to Laettner and his fellow Dookies.
"It's always been very special to me, as the years go by," said Laettner, now playing for the Washington Wizards in his 10th NBA season. "And the more people talk about it, I guess the more special it is. But it's been way up there in my mind anyway. It's not gonna get taken to a higher level, you know what I mean? It's already ingrained in my mind and my life."
Not to mention countless other minds and other lives.
"People talk to me a lot about it when they found out I was there," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who formerly played for Duke and was an assistant to Krzyzewski in 1992. "When you think about games that had great finishes, it's obviously right there.
"But the thing that makes the game stand out for me was that it was well-played from start to finish. You look at the stats, you wonder if anyone was playing defense because everyone shot so well. But guys were making tough shots, contested shots. The game was played at a high level by some really quality players."
No one shot better than Laettner, who made all 10 of his shots en route to a game-high 31 points. Kentucky's star, Jamal Mashburn, was 11-for-16 for 28 points before fouling out. The teams shot a combined 60 percent.
"We were getting shots out of our offense; they were just hitting shots," said Woods, who works in marketing and sales with former Wildcats Kenny Walker and Ed Davender in Lexington. "We were setting great picks, and they were hitting shots out of their butt."
But the shot by Woods, the Wildcats' point guard whose favorite player growing up was Duke's Johnny Dawkins, seemed to have been pulled from some place, too. Kentucky, which erased a 12-point deficit to send the game into overtime, was trailing 102-101 after Laettner made two free throws with 14.1 seconds left.
Woods came off a pick set by John Pelphrey that knocked Duke's Bobby Hurley to the floor at the top of the key. He drove down the lane and encountered Laettner, who had switched off. Farmer was camped just outside the 3-point line, and Deron Feldhaus was open underneath. Players were screaming at Woods to get rid of the ball.
No way.
"Growing up as a kid, you dream of situations like that," he said, "and you try to take advantage of it.
So he went up and flipped the ball over Laettner's outstretched arm.
"I was trying to hit the front of the rim and have it bounce in," Woods said. "But with the adrenaline flowing, you're a little stronger than you think."
The 10-footer hit the backboard and went in.
"It was like, 'No. No. Yes!'" Farmer said. "That was an unbelievable shot."
Kentucky led 103-102 with 2.1 seconds to go, apparently clinching a giant upset. Although the Wildcats were seeded second in the East, they were viewed as a feisty bunch of overachievers who had finally met their match. Duke was more talented.
But none of that mattered as the Blue Devils called a timeout. The building was shaking. Chaos reigned. In the huddle, Krzyzewski calmly told his players, "We're going to win this game," and outlined exactly what they needed to do. Losing, said Laettner, was never an option.
"You don't feel like that unless you're down 10 points with 10 seconds left," he said. "If it's a one- or two-point game, you're taught not to feel like that. If you want to be a champion, you can't allow that to sneak in."
Duke had practiced end-of-game situations before, although not this specific play. Hill, inbounding under his basket, would look for Laettner at the other end of the court. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, meanwhile, would make a decision that remains controversial. He chose to double-team Laettner but leave Hill unguarded.
"My eyes lit up when I saw no one guarding me," Hill said after the game.
Hill was able to lob an unimpeded 75-foot pass, baseball style, to Laettner, who was being guarded by Pelphrey and Feldhaus. But as Laettner caught the ball, the two defenders fell back.
"Laettner basically had a free look at the basket," Bilas said.
"They were afraid to foul," Woods said. "They were afraid to challenge the shot. Coach Pitino took a lot of grief [for not putting anyone on Hill], but he knew exactly what they were gonna run. Christian caught the ball chest-high. It wasn't like he outjumped those guys. But the last thing Coach Pitino said was, 'Don't foul.' They made the effort not to, but they were too passive. It was probably the easiest shot he made all night."
A question persists, however, about whether Laettner should have even been in the game. With 8:06 left in regulation, he was fouled by reserve Aminu Timberlake, who fell to the floor. At that point, the frustrated Laettner intentionally stepped on Timberlake's chest, drawing a technical but no ejection. On the bench, Krzyzewski told Laettner what he did was "very stupid."
"If it was another player or a different game, they probably would have done something," Farmer said.
Said Woods: "He should have been thrown out. If it was one of our guys, I know he would have been thrown out."
And Farmer, "I tell you what, he picked the right guy to stomp on. If he picked anybody else, there would have been a fight. And someone would have been thrown out. Anybody else, he puts his foot on them, he would have jumped up and punched him."
So here was Laettner unchallenged again. Facing Hill, and with his back to the basket, he put the ball on the floor once, turned and shot.
"The ball stayed in the air forever," said Woods, who was guarding Antonio Lang near the basket.
Said Laettner: "I wasn't 100 percent sure it would go in. But I knew it had a good chance."
The buzzer sounded with the ball in the air. Swish. Hill later said, "I felt like I was watching Robert Redford in 'The Natural.'"
The Wildcats had watched a horror movie. And they were in it. Woods collapsed and lay face down on the court. Farmer looked up at the scoreboard and thought, "Did that count?"
He knew the answer.
"I had a barrage of emotions," Farmer said. "Sad. Shocked. Disbelief. Just all kinds of emotions."
Bilas said he got a weird flashback of the 1972 Olympics, when the U.S. team apparently won the gold medal only to lose to the Russians after time was put back on the clock. "I ran right into the locker room," he said. "You always worry about those late-game situations. It was like, 'I'm out of here.'"
Krzyzewski will be remembered for taking the microphone from legendary Kentucky broadcaster Cawood Ledford and telling the crushed Wildcats fans how well their team played. Before that, he spoke to some Kentucky players.
"Coach K did something about as classy as I've ever seen," Farmer said. "He ran over and grabbed me and told me there are no losers. He told me to keep my head up."
Ultimately, despite the unrelenting agony of this defeat, Farmer has tried to do just that.
"Hey, few people can say they were part of the greatest game ever played," he said. "Just to be part of that was a big honor. Look at who played in that game. Hill and Laettner and Hurley and Mashburn. Just to have been part of that game was a tribute and an honor to anyone's career."



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide