25 years later, Grant Hill on the ecstasy and emotional drain of an iconic moment
Overlooked in the pandemonium surrounding any NCAA tournament game-winner is the inherent difficulty in following up those heroics when there are still games left to play.
In 1981, for example, U.S. Reed hit a half-court shot at the horn to lift Arkansas over Louisville in the second round, only to see the Razorbacks blown out by LSU in their next game. In 1998, meanwhile, Rip Hamilton drained a last-second basket to beat Washington in the Sweet 16, then went 5-of-21 from the field as Connecticut got rolled by North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
That Huskies loss came eight years after UConn advanced to a regional final thanks to a Tate George jumper off a full-court heave, only to lose to Duke in overtime on a last-second Christian Laettner bucket — no, not that one — with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Then in 2004, Will Bynum made a running layup to stun Oklahoma State in the national semifinal, only to have his Georgia Tech squad lay an egg against (who else?) Connecticut in the championship game.
That’s not to say, of course, that all tourney thrillers are a harbinger of bad news to come.
UCLA went on to win it all in 1995 after Tyus Edney’s baseline-to-baseline sprint to beat the clock against Missouri in the second round, after all. And 25 years ago Tuesday, Laettner channeled UConn’s George and sunk another game-winning jumper — the one you remember — as time expired against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Nine days after that, Duke became one of two teams in the past 40 years to repeat as national champs.
Still, the follow-up to Laettner’s iconic turnaround swish was forgettable, as Laettner, a senior and the team’s top scorer, made two of eight shots in the Blue Devils’ semifinal win over Indiana, then had seven turnovers in the team’s championship rout of Michigan.
“We didn’t play great in the Final Four, and I think the person who found it difficult was Christian,” former Duke and NBA legend Grant Hill told FOX Sports Tuesday, the anniversary of the play, which saw Hill throw the full-court inbounds pass to set up the shot. “I think he was mentally and emotionally drained.”
Now, as Luke Maye and North Carolina look ahead to their own encore following Maye’s game-winner against Kentucky on Sunday, the Tar Heels will no doubt be looking to avoid the fate that met Reed, Hamilton, Bynum and others before them. But according to Hill, who will be calling this weekend’s Final Four for CBS, that kind of letdown shouldn’t be a problem.
“It’s difficult to sort of come down off of that high and refocus, and now is when you have to be mentally strong, mentally tough,” Hill said. “And I think the Carolina guys will be.”
That’s because the Tar Heels, according to Hill, will be more motivated by their 2016 championship game loss — on a buzzer-beater, no less — than they are exhausted by their Elite Eight back-and-forth with UK.
“Look, they were heartbroken last year,” Hill said of UNC. “I sat with those guys on Saturday, the starting five … and talked to them, and they’re like, ‘Look, we don’t just want to get back to the FInal Four — this year is about winning it.’ And that kind of focus and toughness is necessary to regroup after such a big, emotional win.”
In Hill’s own case, his ‘92 Blue Devils team was motivated not by a devastating loss, but by the target on its back following the school’s 1991 national championship.
“One thing that Coach K did that was very important, to kind of keep us in the ‘hunter’ mindset, if you will, was to start the season the following year saying, ‘Look, we’re not defending champions. What we won last year, no one can take from us,’” Hill recalled. “So it really kind of kept us in a pursuing mindset. … It was a hard season, it was a draining season, but ultimately it was a very rewarding and fulfilling year.”
With respect to “The Shot,” itself, Hill says Laettner’s turnaround J essentially went according to plan.
“Get the ball to Christian, and then Christian could hit somebody,” Hill said, describing Mike Krzyzewski’s play call. “We had guys at halfcourt who were going to be running as soon as the ball was in the air, so if Christian didn’t have a shot, he could kind of tip it to one of those guys, and they could catch and shoot it, or Christian could take it and shoot it. That was pretty much it. There wasn’t a whole lot of deception or misdirection.”
And while some have pointed out that Laettner’s basket could have never happened without Hill’s perfectly placed pass, Hill says he wasn’t nervous about the heave.
“The reality is, as a player, you’re in the moment,” said Hill, who is also promoting the Allstate NABC Good Works Team. “You’re not thinking about history or legacy or pressure or 25,000 or 50,000 people in the crowd. You’re just competing. You’re lost in the moment.
“It’s like going to the playground and playing,” Hill continued. “You could be at the playground with nobody in attendance or you could be in the Spectrum with 20,000 people watching — you’re competing, so there were no nerves. It was, ‘Let’s win. Let’s try to get this play, and if I can get the ball to Christian, then somehow I think he can make something happen.’”
As for this year, Maye certainly made something happen on Sunday, and North Carolina will be the favorites coming into Phoenix, but just as Duke’s ‘92 title was far from a slam dunk, a Tar Heels championship is no guarantee.
“I think we’re in for some good games,” Hill said of the field, which also includes Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon. “I think any one of these teams are capable (of winning). I think we’ll have some close games, and I think you have a contrast in styles. There are different methods and different paths to success, and I think these teams embody that.”
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.