Duke vs. Kentucky: The Heartache of March 28, 1992, Lingers 20 Years LaterPosted by Brian Joyce on November 13th, 2012
The last time Kentucky and Duke met on the basketball court was December 18, 2001, almost 11 years ago. Over a decade has passed since the rivals duked it out (no pun intended) in the Meadowlands at the Jimmy V Classic, and it’s been even longer since the Wildcats actually beat the Blue Devils (March 22, 1998, to be exact!). Kentucky and its natural geographic rival, Louisville, have played each other 12 times during that time period, and the Wildcats have beaten the Cards eight of those times. UK has met up with conference foe Florida 28 times since December 2001, winning 18 of those. If Kentucky loses to Florida, well, there is always a next time around the corner. A loss to Louisville is a bit more difficult to swallow, but another chance will come next season. A loss to Duke, though, like the overtime heart-breaker in 2001, could take more than 10 years to avenge. And tonight Kentucky finally has its next chance.
Kentucky and Duke have played just 19 times, but one game in particular created the modern rivalry. With the Final Four on the line, Christian Laettner‘s fake and subsequent turnaround shot over two Wildcat defenders (Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey) is the frozen image that encapsulates college basketball at its best. Though in the end the spotlight was on Duke, every Kentucky fan can tell you exactly where they were on March 28, 1992.For UK fans, this game represented a tragic moment of community that defines its fanbase. And the shot was a dagger in their heart of unbridled hope.
Just 2.1 seconds earlier, Kentucky point guard Sean Woods had banked in a running leaner to give the Cats a 103-102 lead in the back-and-forth battle. But that shot did more than give Kentucky a slight advantage in a hard-fought contest. Big Blue Nation collectively came crawling out of one of the darkest, probation-riddled moments in its storied history. Woods’ go-ahead bucket signified the long-awaited return of Kentucky basketball to prominence. And two ticks later, Laettner’s shot let Kentucky know it may be back, but not back on top (yet).
The thriller in 1992 was the best college basketball game in my lifetime, but two of the next three games in the Kentucky-Duke timeline were classics in their own right. Kentucky versus Florida or even the Cats against the Cards haven’t been down to the wire every time, but over the last 20 years, Kentucky matching up with Duke is about as close as you can get to a guaranteed classic. Vintage match-ups no doubt, but ones in which the Cats have been on the losing end three out of the last four times.
Though Kentucky and Duke haven’t met in over a decade, the tension is deep and the rivalry meaningful. But meaningful for whom? Kentucky fans have created legends from previous encounters with the Blue Devils. Aminu Timberlake would be a forgotten big man if not for his encounter with the most villainous of all UK villains, the aforementioned Laettner. Former walk-on Cameron Mills knocked down a three to help the Cats storm from 17 down in the 1998 rematch to take the lead over the Blue Devils for the first time. And now, Kentucky fans will never forget him. Scott Padgett was a future NBA player, but he is most remembered for his big three late in that same ’98 game that helped send UK to the Final Four. But these are the legends that Kentucky fans talk about.
What about the current players? Nerlens Noel and the other Kentucky freshmen were born in 1994, two years after the Greatest Game Ever Played. Even the eldest Cat, transfer Julius Mays, was born in 1989. But how can someone that age share the same passion for the Kentucky and Duke rivalry as the average Kentuckian who lived through the 1992 and 1998 classics? Short answer is that they can’t. Memories only go as far back as someone has lived, and it’s not a memory unless it carries emotion with it.
Tuesday’s latest version of Duke-Kentucky as part of the Champions Classic will surely be hard fought, but it has a lot to live up to. The players on the court cannot possibly fathom the significance of what Duke represents to the Kentucky fanbase. That certainly does not mean that they won’t play their hearts out. But don’t be surprised if the outcome of this one is far more crucial for those watching at home on TV then those out on the court. It is just one of 30+ games on the schedule for the players. But for Kentucky fans, it is time for the Wildcats to get the last shot. Their latest shot at redemption, 20 years in the making.
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.