It was 23 years ago this March that Christian Laettner officially became one of the most disliked players (that’s putting it mildly) in the nation after draining the miraculous, game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in what is generally regarded as the greatest NCAA tournament game ever.
The shocking, buzzer-beating turnaround jumper that capped a back-and-forth final minute vaulted defending champion Duke into its fifth straight Final Four and sixth in the last seven years so, of course, how could anyone like him or his teammates? At least that’s how most of the country, outside of Duke’s campus, seemed to “revere” them at the time.
Did they like being successful, yet unliked? Probably not, but their reign has slowly ended. The Blue Devils, who lost their NCAA tournament openers in 2007, 2012, and 2014 are no longer the ultra-successful team that everyone roots against.
That mantle has now been officially taken by Kentucky.
This year’s 38–0 Wildcats, who just reached their fourth Final Four in five years, have such an unfair talent advantage (on both the court and the sidelines) it’s like rooting for the house in Vegas.
John Calipari, the only coach to win 38 games in a season (he’s done it three times now) has a roster stocked with nine McDonald’s All-Americans plus all-everything power forward Willie Cauley-Stein. They can score, rebound, block shots, defend, and play together and, after seeing them escape against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, can apparently sidestep even the best a very good team has to offer.
In case you missed it, the Irish led for most of the second half against the might Wildcats, until even their luck ran out.
In reality, luck had little to do with how well the ACC tournament champions were doing. With point guard Jerian Grant leading the way, it was like Mike Brey had figured out how the secret to scoring against Kentucky’s impossible height-and-speed advantaged defense—the Irish kept the Wildcats off-guard with quick passes while driving right at their shot-blocking big men, when necessary.
The result was scores on 17 of their first 23 second-half possessions. Notre Dame led from 14:57 left at 44–42, following a 3-pointer by Steve Vasturia, all the way until Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer to put him and his teammates up 64–63 with 3:18 to go.
When Grant answered with a 3-pointer of his own to put the Irish back on top with 2:36 remaining though, it would mark Notre Dame’s last score. Whether it was fatigue or not (four Notre Dame players were on the court for 38 or more minutes) the Irish came up empty on their final three possessions, including a shot-clock violation with under a minute to go—marking their first turnover of the half.
Kentucky, meanwhile, had figured out that all they needed to do was continually feed the ball to foul-plagued Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, while substituting him out on defense, and they were able to thrive down the stretch.
It was the first real scare of the tournament for Kentucky, which is already in hallowed territory with the longest unbeaten start to a season, and it’s first real test since LSU took them down the wire before folding in a 71–69 affair way back on Feb. 10.
Now the next test will be a very real one as the Wildcats will have to deal with Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers in a rematch of last year’s Final Four, that was won on a late Aaron Harrison 3-pointer. Does Wisconsin have what it takes to down Kentucky? Maybe, if they hit 3s at an impossible rate like they did against Arizona, they can pull off the shocker. Naturally, all of America will be rooting for them—especially Duke.