Other than along Philadelphia’s Main Line, nowhere was Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating, three-point shot to beat North Carolina and win the 2016 NCAA championship for Villanova seemingly greeted with more joy than in Kentucky.
At long last, it seemed the NCAA Tournament had finally produced a play of such consequence and drama that it would supersede Christian Laettner’s dagger to the heart of the Big Blue Nation in the 1992 NCAA East Region finals as the iconic image of the Big Dance.
Almost the second that Jenkins’ trey trickled through the nets, Twitter lit up with Kentucky celebration.
Tod Lanter, the former UK basketball walk-on, tweeted “HOLY HELL THE CHRISTIAN LAETTNER SHOT IS FINALLY COMING OFF TELEVISION!!!!”
Thomas Beisner, of CN2’s Kentucky Sports Television, was every bit as emphatic: “NO MORE LAETTNER SHOT ON EVERY BROADCAST ... BLESS YOU AND EVERYONE YOU LOVE KRIS JENKINS”
McCracken County sports radio broadcaster Eric Chumbler was more subdued: “Good news for #BBN. That will cut down future Christian Laettner replays in half.”
Even the (Blue) Devil himself seemed to share in the sentiment that the March Madness torch had been passed. “What a game and a shot! Passing the crown to Jenkins!” Christian Laettner tweeted.
Yet with liberation feeling so close, I fear those Kentucky backers suffering from Post-Laettner Shot Distress (PLSD) might not find the respite they thought they had gained.
The reason is the calendar.
In any other year but 2017, you would think Jenkins’ three-pointer, set up by Ryan Arciadiacono’s poised pass, would gain the featured position in all NCAA tourney video montages.
Next year’s NCAA Tournament, however, will be the 25th anniversary of Duke’s epic 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky — a game that was decided on Grant Hill’s three-quarters-court-length pass and Laettner’s stone-cold jump shot over UK defenders Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey.
So, just as the Villanova shot finally gave Cats fans hope of seeing the Duke game winner supplanted, the silver anniversary of what many consider the greatest men’s college basketball game ever played makes it likely replays of Laettner’s shot could actually be in heavier rotation.
For Wildcats supporters, that would mean even more reliving of a defeat of keen emotional poignance. On the play before Laettner’s heroics, UK point guard Sean Woods had banked in an improbable, 12-foot runner in the lane to put Kentucky ahead 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left.
Of course, in that 2.1 seconds Wildcats fans went from a win for the ages to a rip-the-heart-from-your-chest defeat. Making it even tougher, Laettner’s clutch basket ended the college careers of The Unforgettables — Richie Farmer, Feldhaus, Pelphrey and Woods. The four seniors had stuck with UK through a harsh NCAA probation and helped launch Wildcats basketball on the road to recovery.
Woods said last week he does not believe Jenkins’ title-winning shot will surpass Laettner’s heroics in the lore of the NCAA tourney.
“There have been a whole lot of (other) game-winning shots (in the NCAA Tournament) since Laettner,” Woods said. “But they haven’t had (the impact) of the Laettner shot. I think there is a fascination with that (UK-Duke) game, with that shot, and with Christian Laettner and his college basketball career. I don’t think that is going to change.”
Feldhaus acknowledged Friday the UK players who played in the 1992 game with Duke derive some benefit from the constant replaying of Laettner’s game winner. “It sort of keeps people talking about The Unforgettables and our playing days,” Feldhaus said.
Long ago, Feldhaus says, he made his peace with having to watch the shot that ended his career played over and over each March Madness.
“You just know that, anytime they show a montage of great tournament moments, that’s gonna be the focus of it,” Feldhaus said. “I also know my buddies here in Maysville are going to ride me about it, about my defense, anytime it’s on. It doesn’t bother me, not at all.”
The continuous loop of Laettner turning to break their hearts does seem to bother many Kentucky fans.
In the 2010 NCAA title game, UK backers almost found their salvation. That year, Butler’s Gordon Hayward rimmed out a half-court shot that would have beaten Duke for the national championship. Had that ball gone in, it would have been the shot that knocked Laettner’s off its perch.
Jenkins’ game-winner Monday night was not from half-court. But it was a thrilling, NCAA championship-deciding buzzer beater.
Yet with next year’s 25th anniversary of the game likely to bring a ton of media retrospectives, it seems possible that Villanova’s game-winning basket will not become the preeminent symbol of the NCAA Tournament in 2017.
Which is why Kris Jenkins might not have supplied the antidote to UK fans and their “Laettner shot fatigue” many of us thought he had.