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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Rematch Should Be Great II

South: Kentucky-Duke game in regional not only has Final Four berth on the line, it is first meeting of schools since Laettner's heroics in 1992.

March 22, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Here's a lesson in how to upstage the Final Four:

Wait six years after Duke's Christian Laettner beat the buzzer and Kentucky in overtime, in one of the great games of modern history, between two of the most dominant programs and two of the sport's best coaches.

Make sure neither team has played each other since, but arrange for both to roll over practically everybody else.

See both teams build themselves up with depth and incredible talent, wind them up, and set the matchup for today, at Tropicana Field, in the South Regional final.

Call it: The Greatest Game, II.

All that's at stake when top-seeded Duke faces second-seeded Kentucky is a berth in the Final Four, a sense of redemption for the entire state of Kentucky, and the chance to keep Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski's incredible record in NCAA regional finals unblemished--he's 7-0.

"What they've done has been phenomenal," Krzyzewski said of Kentucky's blistering run through its conference tournament and three rounds of the tournament, including a 26-point blasting of UCLA on Friday.

"They've kind of destroyed people."

The closest Krzyzewski has come to losing a regional final was in 1992, when Kentucky's Sean Woods made a jumper to give the Wildcats a 103-102 lead in the East Regional at Philadelphia.

Then Grant Hill chucked a 75-foot pass to Laettner, who caught, turned and made the most famous jump shot in Duke history--and the most agonizing in Kentucky's.

Duke went on to win a second consecutive national title that season. Kentucky recovered and went to the Final Four in 1993, won the national championship 1996, and made the Final Four again last season, before Coach Rick Pitino left for the NBA.

But they hadn't had a chance to settle the score, not until now.

"I don't think that team in '92 made any mistakes, it just came down to who got the ball last was going to win," Wildcat forward Scott Padgett said. "Maybe from a fan's eyes, we've got a chance for redemption.

"But that's not what we're concerned about. We just want to win the game, get to the Final Four, and win the national championship."

Kentucky is coached by Tubby Smith now, not Pitino, and all the players involved today were either in high school or junior high when the Laettner shot went in. Most of the ones quizzed Saturday didn't even watch it.

So will the power of that game have an impact on this one?

"Not unless Christian Laettner gets to play for us, and Jamal Mashburn plays for them," said Blue Devil senior point guard Steve Wojchiechowski.

What happens, Smith was asked, if his Wildcats don't erase the six-year anguish, and lose by a point in overtime on a last-second shot?

"I can't go back, man," Smith said with a deadpan stare. "You know I can't go back to Kentucky."

Then Smith laughed hard.

"Actually, our players certainly know that was one of the greatest games every played," Smith said. "But it's not going to have an affect on them, and I'm sure it'll have no affect on Duke."

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