No matter how one is covering March Madness, it’s impossible not to miss a lot. But sometimes you just goof up and do it to yourself.
In 1998, as a favor to my wife, I thought I could get away with taping the last of the four NCAA Tournament Elite Eight games and watching on delay. It’s how I watch a lot of the basketball, since it allows me to see more basketball. But I can’t find out the score, or it’s ruined for me.
And this time, I found out the score from a most unexpected source.
MISSING MARCH MADNESS: Playing out full schedule, scores for 2020 NCAA Tournament
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky, South Region, 1998
Why I missed it: I was working for the Cincinnati Enquirer then, doing columns for Sporting News on the side. I covered North Carolina’s East Region victory over Connecticut on Saturday, flew back home and watched Stanford become the third team in the Final Four with a narrow victory over Rhode Island. Kentucky-Duke was huge, but I owed my wife a dinner after months of being away. I was fine with setting the VCR to tape the game and planning to watch it when we got back. My mistake? We chose to dine at deSha’s, which has a location in Cincinnati — but also one in Lexington. I didn’t make the connection. When the Wildcats stormed from 17 points down to win, the waitress came to the table and started talking with great excitement about what happened. Totally ruined it for me.
What I missed: A regional final featuring 11 future NBA players and 11 future NCAA champions (the nine from Kentucky, plus Shane Battier of 2001 Duke and Mike Chappell, who transferred to play for Michigan State in 2000). Also, one of the tournament history’s many great comebacks.
Date: March 22, 1998
Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg
Rules at the time: 35-second clock, 3-point line set at 19 feet, 9 inches; no “no-charge zone”
Coaches: Tubby Smith (Kentucky); Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
Announcers: Jim Nantz, voice of the tournament since 1991, and Billy Packer, a Final Four analyst for more than three decades
There was so much talent on the floor that neither team could figure out a way to stop the other — which made it a fabulously entertaining game. For the first 30 minutes, though, Kentucky had way more trouble defending Duke.
There was a point early in the game when Packer caught a glimpse of the future, citing how Duke had adopted some of the principles of the European drive-and-kick game. The Devils weren’t alone in that — Charlie Spoonhour had done it at Saint Louis in 1994-95 with Erwin Claggett, Scott Highmark and H Waldman — but it was rare in the college game then. It became the primary offensive approach for the 2001 Duke championship team, and eventually became one of the most important elements of the worldwide game.
The Blue Devils made three extended runs in that time: first, to build a 31-20 lead at 9:15 of the first half on a travel by UK’s Jeff Sheppard and then a Roshown McLeod baseline turnaround away from a double-team; then, to a 49-39 halftime lead on a Chappell right-corner 3-pointer, off a beautiful drive-and-kick from Chris Carrawell; and then to a 71-54 advantage, when the Blue Devils grabbed three consecutive offensive rebounds, one of which was a tip-in by Carrawell.
And then it all fell apart.
Kentucky took off on a 16-1 run that included a 3-pointer by wing Heshimu Evans, another by power forward Scott Padgett, a fastbreak and-1 by point guard Wayne Turner and then a four-point possession that developed when McLeod was caught fighting through a screen with a high elbow. That was an intentional foul, and Sheppard made the two free throws, followed by Turner splitting the middle for a floater. Duke’s lead was down to 72-70, and all the confidence had shifted to Kentucky’s side.
The Devils recovered when Battier drew a foul and made two free throws and Trajan Langdon hit a pullup jumper for a 79-75 lead. There was a chance to extend that after Evans committed a turnover. But Langdon attempted a terrible shot that served as a warning of what was to come from the Devils; Turner halved the lead with a 14-foot pullup in transition.
Then came another dubious shot choice, this one from McLeod. Like Langdon’s fallaway drive to the left, he let go of the ball with four UK defenders within 2 feet of him.
Packer was appalled by Duke’s shot selection.
That was followed by what might have been the biggest play of Kentucky’s championship season. Honestly, it was generated by a Turner shot that was nearly as wild as any of Duke’s: a drive to the right and a baseline pullup that was closely guarded. But as McLeod jumped to grab the rebound with both hands, seemingly uncontested, Evans fought off a block-out by Battier, surged from underneath the goal and swatted it directly out of McLeod’s hands, back toward the perimeter, to the waiting arms of senior guard Cameron Mills. To that point, Mills had not attempted a single shot. He had not made a basket in the tournament.
He didn’t hesitate. He fired from beyond the top of the key, and that 3-point attempt flew directly through the goal. Kentucky had the lead at 80-79.
It was tied with 1:16 left and Duke had the ball, but that opportunity was wasted on another unwarranted shot, this time from freshman William Avery. It was not the last mistake Avery would make. When Kentucky ran a high-ball screen, with Padgett setting the pick to free up Turner, freshman center Elton Brand handled it perfectly, sliding to his right and containing the ball. Turner had nowhere to go. He had somewhere to pass, though, because Avery chose to chase the ball and leave Padgett open.
The perfect play call from Tubby Smith left open the ideal player to take that shot. Padgett drained the 3-pointer, and the comeback was complete.
Final score: Kentucky 86, Duke 84
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