John Clay

Twenty-five years later, what if Christian Laettner had missed?

It has been 25 years.

“It’s amazing that it’s been 25 years,” Grant Hill said. “It’s hard to believe that it has been that long.”

It has been that long, however, a quarter-century since The Shot. You know, that shot. The one Christian Laettner hit at the buzzer on March 28, 1992, to give the Duke Blue Devils a 104-103 victory over Kentucky in the finals of the East Regional at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

You know, the greatest college basketball game ever played.

Amazingly enough, it still owns that title. A quarter-century and millions of games later, the game holds up. It has stood the test of time. Even now — especially now, during March Madness, it remains the subject of conversation and conjecture and reminiscence and that incessant video clip of Laettner making The Shot. Forever, that clip.

“I think we get to relive it every year during March Madness. I think that keeps it in everybody’s mind,” said Hill, the ex-Blue Devil who made the three-quarters court pass that set up Laettner’s final shot. “It’s sort of become one of the iconic moments that people associate with this tournament. It’s pretty cool to relive it every March.”

“It does surprise me,” said John Pelphrey, the ex-Wildcat who figured prominently in The Shot. “Being in it, playing the game, you’re not really thinking about things like that. In hindsight, when you think of the coaches and the programs and the Final Four being on the line and the level of play, you can see why people still remember it.”

Kentucky fans would love to forget it. They can’t. The video won’t let them. Over and over. Yes, Kris Jenkins’ shot last year that gave Villanova the national title over North Carolina is the tournament’s new buzzer beater du jour, but the networks and college hoops haven’t forgotten the Laettner shot. Not yet.

Then there is the pain, still fresh, from North Carolina’s 75-73 last-second win over Kentucky in Sunday’s South Region finals. Another No. 32, one named Luke Maye, hit the winning shot with 0.3 seconds left to bring a crushing end to UK’s season. Still, it wasn’t The Shot.

“So much was said about it by the national media, you knew people were going to continue to talk about it,” said Ralph Hacker, a longtime member of the UK radio broadcast who was working with the retiring Cawood Ledford that Saturday in Philadelphia. “People who were not there were there. People who didn’t watch it watched it.”

Yet here’s the thing almost no one asks: What if Laettner had missed?

Have the participants ever thought about that?

“Never,” said Hill, now an analyst for TNT who will work this year’s Final Four. He grins. “Never.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve thought about it,” said Pelphrey, now associate head coach at Alabama. “There was a point in time where I thought about it a lot.”

No one could blame him. Laettner was a perfect 10 for 10 from the floor that day. The 10th cost the Unforgettables (Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Pelphrey and Sean Woods) a trip to the Final Four. That would have been a fitting climax for four players who stuck with the program through two years when probation rendered UK ineligible for the tournament at all.

“If he would have missed just one shot, that would have been helpful,” said Pelphrey, who along with Feldhaus defended Laettner in vain. “Just one.”

It didn’t cost Rick Pitino, the coach, the distinction of one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in the history of the sport. That had already been established. Under Pitino’s guidance, Kentucky would play (and lose to) Michigan’s Fab Five in the Final Four the following season. It would win a title in 1996 and play for another in 1997. Still, to beat Duke, the defending national champions, in UK’s first year off probation would have been a career-defining feat.

Had Laettner missed, would Pitino have won his first title and Kentucky its sixth in 1992? Bob Knight and Indiana awaited in the Final Four. UK had beaten the Hoosiers 76-74 in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis the previous December. Indiana would have sought revenge. Maybe Knight would have four national crowns, not three.

“It would have been a tough game,” Pelphrey said. “Then if we were fortunate enough to win that game, would have played the Fab Five in the finals. It could have been a disaster, I don’t know.”

If Laettner misses, Sean Woods is the hero. It was Woods’ improbable bank shot with 2.1 seconds left that put Kentucky ahead, 103-102. The front page of Sunday’s Herald-Leader the next day would have been of that shot, not of Woods being consoled by Cats Pause publisher Oscar Combs as he left the floor.

If Laettner misses, Duke doesn’t become the first team to win back-to-back titles since UCLA two decades earlier. Mike Krzyzewski has four titles instead of five. He’s tied with UK legend Adolph Rupp behind John Wooden, not one ahead.

If Laettner misses, the game is regarded as a great game, but not the greatest of all time. Books would not have been written about it. No anniversary stories. Not outside of Kentucky, anyway.

“I don’t think you would have heard two words about it,” Hacker said. “Really, I thought the 1998 (UK-Duke) game in St. Petersburg was the better game.”

After all, Kentucky won that 1998 South Region title game over Duke to earn a Final Four trip and eventually a national championship. Depending on your point of view, the outcome makes all the difference.

Still, even in defeat, was Pelphrey proud to have played in that game? Not really, he said. He is respectful, but there is no solace in losing, he said. Instead, Pelphrey owns pride in the opportunity, of playing college basketball “in the greatest place ever” for a “Hall of Fame coach.” All that, he said, is humbling.

Twenty-five years later, Hacker doesn’t dwell on The Shot as much as what immediately followed. He can still see Krzyzewski walking across the court directly to where the UK radio crew was sitting.

“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Ralph, let me have your headphones,’” Hacker said. “Then he got on the air and said goodbye Cawood. That may have been the classiest move by any coach I’ve ever seen in all my time covering college basketball.”

Twenty five years later, the disappointment has stood the test of time.

“It stinks because we lost,” Pelphrey said.

Had Laetter missed, the history of college basketball would be written differently.

“But,” said Hacker, “he didn’t.”