INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino are finally doing an encore.
For the first time since their teams played perhaps the greatest game in the history of the NCAA tournament, Krzyzewski and Pitino will meet in the NCAA tournament Sunday when top-seeded Louisville faces Duke. In the regional finals, no less.
Never mind that few of their current players were even born in 1992. Or that Pitino is no longer at Kentucky, having switched sides in the state’s civil war after his brief trip to Boston and the NBA ended badly.
Krzyzewski and Pitino are forever linked by that one game in Philadelphia, immortalized by Christian Laettner’s improbable shot.
“It’s one of those moments in time that helped define our sport,” Krzyzewski said Saturday. “When I’ve talked to Rick about it, we realize we were the lucky guys. We had different roles at that time, but we were both lucky to be there.”
Said Pitino, “It was like being in Carnegie Hall and seeing the best musician or the best singer. Just sitting there in amazement of what they were doing out on the basketball court.”
Krzyzewski and Pitino are two of the finest coaches of their generation, with five NCAA titles and 1,618 victories between them. Yet for all of their success, and for as good a friends as they are, Krzyzewski and Pitino rarely play each other.
When Louisville (32-5) and Duke (30-5) played in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November — Duke won — it was the first time Krzyzewski and Pitino had played each other since ‘92. Sunday’s game will be their third meeting ever.
“That’s why we got them in the conference. Got to start doing this a little bit more,” Krzyzewski joked, referring to Louisville’s upcoming move to the ACC.
But almost nothing could top that first meeting between them.
The Blue Devils, led by Laettner and Grant Hill, were defending national champions in 1992. Kentucky was on the rise again after two years on probation. When they met in the old Spectrum for the East Region finals, it was a showdown of the 1 and 2 seeds, a game worthy of a national championship.
“It was such a high-scoring game with so much perfection in the way players passed and shot the ball. That’s what made it stand the test of time,” Pitino said. “It was a game where two coaches could sit back and watch great players perform at the highest level.”
After coming from 10 down in regulation, Kentucky appeared to have the game won when Sean Woods made a running bank shot in the lane with 2.5 seconds left in overtime. Duke called a timeout, and gave the ball to Grant Hill to inbound.
The Wildcats knew the ball was going to Laettner, a 6-foot-11 center who’d made a buzzer-beater against Connecticut in the regional finals two years earlier. But without Jamal Mashburn —he’d fouled out — Pitino pulled John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus aside and warned them not to foul.
“I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t foul him. He hasn’t missed a shot,’” Pitino recalled. “I shouldn’t have done that. That was the mistake I made. I should have said, ‘Whatever you do, bat down the ball. I don’t care what the contact is, go for the basketball.’
“You saw my guys freeze a little bit.”
As anyone who’s ever watched the NCAA tournament in the last 21 years knows, Hill threw a strike from the far baseline and found Laettner at the foul line with his back to the basket. Laettner faked right, spun to his left and his 15-footer hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded.
“I don’t think you can realize the significance at that time,” Krzyzewski said. “I will always remember the stark difference in emotion. Because, right in front of me, Richie Farmer collapsed. I see our guys jump and I see him fall. And really, I was more taken by Richie. I understood by looking at him … just how tough that was.”
It was agonizing for the first 24 hours, Pitino said. But when he popped a tape of the game in the next day, he saw it in a different light.
“I just sat back and said, ‘Darn, that was some hell of a basketball game,’” he said. “I got the guys together and I said, ‘Man, that was a great game.’ Really was a great game, especially playing without Mash.”
Duke would go on to win its second straight title, beating Michigan in the final. Kentucky would complete its revival four years later when the Wildcats beat Syracuse for their sixth NCAA title and first since 1978.
But it is that game that everyone remembers, and the years have done nothing to diminish it.
Clips of the play are on repeat throughout the tournament each year. And as the NCAA celebrates 75 years of March Madness this year, the Laettner play has been among the highlights.
“I do think about it often,” Pitino said. “Not from a revenge standpoint, but as a great game that I was happy to be part of.
“To me, it’s one of the best losses I’ve ever had,” he said. “A bad loss is where your guys play terrible, you don’t play. It was a great loss because my guys played almost a perfect game and we just had the wrong ending for us. But it was one of the greatest basketball games ever played because it was so high-powered with great play. One great play after another. That was fun to be part of.”
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