As they outdid each other with each successive play, Duke and Kentucky may have invented one more criterion for a great game, a standard beyond import, excellence or drama. "People who saw it knew it was a great game," says Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils' coach. "They didn't need any announcer or sports-writer to tell them it was. And not only Duke fans and Kentucky fans felt that way. Any basketball fan who saw it felt disbelief that any of it could happen."
There is always the danger of popular acclaim undeservingly transmuting a widely seen game into something grander. There is similar peril in overpraising a sports event simply because it is so gratefully welcomed, as this was, coming in the midst of news of Mike Tyson's sentencing for his rape conviction, a looming hockey strike and the alleged lewd extracurriculars of the New York Mets' David Cone. But the Final Four itself would pay the Fast Regional final the supreme compliment one week later. At that point, as Duke somnambulated through the first halves of its games with Indiana and Michigan in Minneapolis, there could have been little doubt that on the whole, the Blue Devils would rather have been in Philadelphia—and in a sense still were.
For purposes of history the regional final didn't really begin until the second half, when Kentucky called timeout with 11:08 remaining. The Wildcats stood 12 points down, 67-55, and Duke, Rick Pitino feared, was about to disappear over the horizon.
Going into the game, Pitino believed his team held only one clear advantage. No one was in better shape than Kentucky. The Wildcats were sure to lose in a half-court game, but if they could apply defensive pressure—like a bad Catskills comic, Pitino calls this defense the "mother-in-law," for its "constant pressure and harassment"—they might turn the game into a test of stamina and beat Duke at the end. Pitino also had a theory, tested during his turn as coach of the NBA's New York Knicks, about great point guards. The most-talented point guards, he had observed, tend to force the action; no players had proved more error-prone against the Knicks' pressure than Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Thus Pitino relished the chance to face Hurley, Duke's playmaker. Even if pressure didn't lead directly to turnovers, Pitino reasoned, the hubris of a good point guard would send gas to a game's engine, thus assuring that the better-conditioned team would claim its advantage.
Yet to play Duke in a full-court man-to-man would be to put his team at risk of deep foul trouble. So for the first time all season Kentucky began the game dropping from a man-to-man press into a half-court zone. But now, down 12, Pitino didn't feel he could continue that way. He abandoned the zone, ordering man-to-man pressure at both ends of the floor. "We have them right where we want them," Pitino told his team. "Now we make our comeback."
His players made it clear, with their looks, that they believed him. Kentucky scored eight straight points over the next minute, six of them on a couple of three-pointers by sophomore Jamal Mashburn. The score now stood 67-63, and the sudden ferocity with which the game had turned seemed to wake people up throughout the Spectrum. To that point Tim Higgins, the senior official, had been struck by the prevailing level of concentration. There had been no back talk from coaches or players. I'd better strap on my equipment, Higgins now thought to himself. This is going to be a buzzer job.
On the Duke bench Krzyzewski was disappointed, for during the timeout he had warned his team to expect just such a run. "We had our effort on and turned it off," he says now. "Moments like that point out one of the things that make basketball different from other sports. So much can happen when the clock is stopped, and one of the hardest things is to maintain focus."
The Blue Devils suffered another lapse a minute and a half later, when they held a 73-68 lead, Laettner took a pass on the blocks, then powered up for a shot as forward Aminu Timberlake came over to challenge him. Their collision left Timberlake supine in the lane. An instant later Laettner took his right foot and planted it deliberately into Timberlake's stomach.
Laettner's act wasn't malicious. Even Timberlake, who leaped to his feet clapping because he believed Laettner would be ejected, hardly considered it a provocation. Over the summer Timberlake would have to spend more time than he cared to persuading folks in his neighborhood in Chicago that it hadn't been worthy of retaliation. "He tried to come up with some story about me pushing him," Timberlake says now. "But I don't believe I was in the game long enough to push him." No, it was just a chippy, I'm-Christian-Laettner-and-you're-not thing to do.
"I don't know if he did it on purpose or not," Len Elmore, the CBS commentator, said as the play unfolded.