DURHAM, N.C. - Duke and Kentucky have a long history, one that dates back more than 80 years.
But the real rivalry between the two college basketball superpowers is barely two decades old. Everything changed on the afternoon of Mar. 28, 1992, when Duke edged Kentucky in a game that ESPN has voted as the greatest college basketball game ever played.
It’s a loss that still infuriates Wildcat fans.
“I was in Lexington, watching the game,” Vince Taylor, who shunned his hometown Wildcats to play for Duke in the late 1970s, said. “When that kid hit that shot [Sean Woods hitting with 2.1 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead], it seemed like it was meant to be. Then [Christian Laettner] hit that shot – I was as shocked as anybody. Man, that guy was clutch.”
But he was also hated by the Kentucky nation.
“It wasn’t just the shot – when Laettner stepped on that guy’s chest, it infuriated people,” Taylor said. “Duke is the team people love to hate. They won’t let it go.”
Before that ’92 game, Duke and Kentucky were just another pair of basketball opponents.
“It wasn’t heated at all,” Rob Hardy, a Kentucky native who was a member of the Duke team that lost to Kentucky in the 1978 NCAA title game, said of the rivalry. “1992 is when it turned the corner. And it hasn’t died down since.”
No. 8 Duke and No. 3 Kentucky will add a new chapter to the rivalry when they meet Tuesday night in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Bruce Bell, another Kentuckian – he grew up in Lexington, went to law school at the University of Kentucky, and is now a judge in Lexington – will be there, sitting in the Kentucky section with his future son-in-law (also a Duke grad), trying to hide his Duke allegiance.
“We’ll be sitting on our hands,” he said.
Bell also played for the 1978 Duke team that lost to the Wildcats in St. Louis.
“There wasn’t the hatred then,” Bell said, agreeing with Hardy that the series changed in 1992. “You have to understand how the people of Kentucky felt about that  team – they called them the Unforgettables. They had turned the program around and brought Kentucky back. Then Laettner’s shot … “
Bell is talking about Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot to beat Kentucky that day.“Now you have to watch that shot replayed a thousand times every year,” Bell said.
Bell, whose father Tommy Bell was a famous NFL referee and was also a member of the Kentucky Board of Trustrees, thinks he understands the Kentucky mindset – maybe because he’s a Kentucky fan himself.
“I’m both a Kentucky fan and a Duke fan,” he said. “My Kentucky friends don’t believe that. But I grew up going to all the games. I used to come home every summer and I’d play with all the Kentucky guys. James Lee, the sixth man on that ’78 Kentucky team, was a high school teammate. Jack Givens [who scored 41 points in the title game against Duke] played on the team that knocked my high school team out of the state playoffs. I used to tell him that he ended both my high school and my college careers.
“Before the championship game, my teammates were teasing me about it. They told me, ‘Don’t go warm up with the wrong team.’”
Because of his close ties to Kentucky, Bell understands that the intensity of the rivalry goes deeper than just one game, even if that was the flashpoint.
“They were worried that Duke was challenging their status in college basketball,” he suggested.
That was a valid concern. Kentucky, building on the legacy of Adolph Rupp, has a strong claim as the most important program in college basketball. True, UCLA has won more titles, but almost all of those came during one 12-year span under John Wooden. Kentucky’s greatness stretches from the 1930s to the modern day with very few down periods. And nobody has as rabid a fan base.
“People in Kentucky feel that no program can rival them,” Taylor said. “They have some of the best fans anywhere. They have unbelievable allegiance to the school. They think Kentucky should always be at the top. But there has been a sense that Duke is chipping away at that.”
Historically, Duke can’t match Kentucky’s pedigree. But in the modern era – usually defined as at the beginning of the NCAA’s 64-team NCAA Tournament era in 1985 – the Blue Devils have accomplished more than the Wildcats – more championships, more Final Fours, more top poll finishes, more wins overall. Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke has been a better program than Kentucky.
And the Devils have turned around the head-to-head rivalry. Through the 1978 NCAA title game, Kentucky won 10 of the first 12 meetings between the schools. But starting with the opening game of the 1979-80 season, Duke has won six of seven games with the ‘Cats.
“I like to feel I was a part of that,” Taylor said. “Me and Gene [Banks] and Kenny [Dennard] and Big Mike [Gminski] – we started that.”
Indeed, those were the stars of Bill Foster’s 1979-80 Duke team that turned the series around. They edged Kentucky in overtime in the opener at the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass., then ended Kentucky’s season by knocking off the Wildcats in the NCAA Sweet 16 – in Rupp Arena!
“People always thought it was most unfair that we had to play them in Rupp,” Taylor said. “Naturally, there were confident that they were going to the Final Four with two home games to play.”
Taylor was actually happy to get the chance to play in his hometown. He admits that he caught some flack when he elected to sign with Duke out of high school – over the Wildcats – but admitted that most of the ribbing was good natured.
“My friends would ask me why I didn’t want to play for the Big Blue … and I’d tell them I was playing for the Big Blue – just a different blue," Taylor said. “It wasn’t bad because nobody had any bad feelings about Duke [in 1978]. It would be different if I had done that after ’92.”
Taylor played well in both games against Kentucky in 1979-80. His biggest play came at the buzzer of the NCAA matchup. Duke had led the entire game, but spurred by their home crowd, the ‘Cats had fought back to within one point. And Kentucky had the ball for the last shot.
“I knew Kyle Macy would take the shot,” Taylor said. “And I also knew they would call a foul if I touched him. I was there before he shot. I didn’t even jump – I stood there flatfooted, my arms straight up.”
Taylor bothered Macy’s shot and it clanked away at the buzzer. The Duke star held his breath, listening for a whistle.
“His momentum carried him in to me,” Taylor said. “But I didn’t foul him. I never left me feet. Of course, Kyle would probably tell you a different story.”
Since that 1979-80 season, Duke has almost always found ways to beat the Wildcats.And THAT has fueled the fire started when Laettner broke millions of Kentucky hearts.
“Nobody likes it that Duke has won so much,” Bell said.
Both Bell and Hardy, who now works as a lawyer for an insurance firm in the state capital of Frankfurt, think the rivalry has cooled just a tiny bit in recent years.
“Since Coach [John] Calipari has had so much success in the last few years, especially winning the championship last year, they are a little less defensive about the program,” Bell said. “They feel like they are better than Duke now.”
Hardy, whose father was an SEC quarterback for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, said the still sees plenty of anti-Duke t-shirts and the like, but he saw some softening a year ago, when Laettner returned to Kentucky for an all-star game.
“It was during the NBA strike,” he said. “They organized a Kentucky-Indiana all-star game and Christian coached the visiting team. He did a great job and had a lot of fun with it”
The Duke-Kentucky rivalry has had some interesting ramifications in recent years, especially in the 2010 Senate race in Kentucky. When Rand Paul was running in the Republican primary against Trey Grayson, his opponent tried to attack him for being a graduate of the Duke Medical School. At the same time, Jack Conway was running for the Democratic nomination and his opponent tried to use the fact that he was a Duke graduate against him.
The Duke “smear” didn’t work in either case and the two former Blue Devils ended up running for the Senate seat vacated by Jim Bunning (with Paul winning).
“Obviously, the Duke connection didn’t come up in the general election,” Bell said.
Hardy points out that Matt Jones, who runs the Kentucky Sports Report, attended Duke Law School, which has proven to be a source of discomfort for the Kentucky basketball fanatic.
“He claims to despise Duke basketball,” Hardy said. “But he does tell people that he’s a Duke football fan.”
Taylor, who is now an assistant coach at Minnesota under former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, has a great excuse to watch Tuesday’s Duke-Kentucky game – Taylor’s Gophers face Duke Nov. 22 in the Battle of Atlantis – so the former Blue Devil star can mix business and pleasure.
Hardy will watch this week’s game at his Frankfurt home with his wife – a Transylvania grad who has learned to love Duke basketball. He won’t go out of his way to taunt his Kentucky friends, but does feel comfortable pulling for the Blue Devils in the heart of Kentucky country.
“I can cheer for my team,” he said. “Everybody knows that and accepts that.”
Still, if the Blue Devils prevail Tuesday night in Atlanta, both Bell and Hardy would do well to keep their celebrations well muted.
Duke and Kentucky have met 19 times, starting in 1930.
One oddity is that 12 of the 19 games have been played on neutral courts. Kentucky has played five home games in the series, Duke just two. Four of the 19 games have come in the NCAA Tournament, with each team winning twice. Three games have gone to overtime (all won by Duke).
Those 19 games have produced a number of memorable matchups. Here are a few:
Mar. 3, 1930 – In the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament in Atlanta, Duke improved to 18-1 on the season with a 37-32 victory over Kentucky. In what was described as “the fastest game of the tournament,” Duke big man Joe Croson led the Devils to victory.
“The angular Duke center was all over the floor, scored 13 points and got the tipoff from both Yates and Milward, the Kerntucky centers,” according to an anonymous newspaper reporter.
Croson’s fine play was more amazing, considering he spent three days in the hospital in the week before the tournament.
Kentucky led 24-20 before Croson tied the game with a four-point play (fouls in the act of shooting carried two free throws in 1930) to ignite a 10-0 run that proved decisive.
Duke lost to Alabama in the Southern Conference championship game 24 hours later.
Dec. 18, 1956 – Kentucky had won the next four matchups in the series and seemed well on its way to winning a fifth when the No. 7 Wildcats visited Duke Indoor Stadium for a pre-Christmas game in front of a non-sellout crowd of 6,000.
Kentucky dominated the game from the beginning, opening a 50-40 halftime lead and stretched that margin to 15 points midway through the second half. It was still nine points (83-74) when Wildcat star Johnny Cox connected with just over two minutes left.
That’s when Duke coach Harold Bradley called for a fullcourt press – unleashing his dynamic guards Bobby Joe Harris and Bucky Allen. The pressure seemed to stun the powerful Wildcats.
“We played stupid and Duke played smart,” Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp said after watching Duke outscore his team 12-1 down the stretch to steal the 85-84 victory.
Allen, a local product from Durham High, hit the winning basket with 15 seconds left, although Kentucky had a chance to tie or take the lead when Cox went to the foul-line with 11seconds remaining. He missed, Duke rebounded, and the Devils were able to claim their second victory in the series.
Rupp couldn’t resist one last dig.
“Maybe next time we come, they’ll fill the place up,” he said.
Mar. 18, 1966 – Before No. 2 Duke faced No. 1 Kentucky in the NCAA semifinals in College Park, Md., UCLA coach John Wooden said, “Duke is the best team I’ve seen all year. But I haven’t seen Kentucky. Let’s say the champion will be the winner of Duke-Kentucky.”
But Duke was playing with a handicap. All-American guard Bob Verga was just out of the hospital with strep throat and barely able to play. When Adolph Rupp heard the news, he put guard Larry Conley in the infirmary with the flu. Three years later, when Duke played in Lexington, a Wildcat assistant coach told the Duke staff that Conley’s illness was merely a ploy by Rupp to avoid giving Duke a psychological edge.
Whatever the truth, Conley started and played his usual game. Verga played briefly and scored six points (12 under his average). Even so, Duke stayed close as All-American Jack Marin abused Kentucky’s Pat Riley for 29 points and sophomore Mike Lewis scored 21 inside.
But with Duke down two in the final minutes, Lewis missed a shot inside and the ‘Cats converted the miss into a fastbreak layup. That provided the final margin in Kentucky’s 83-79 victory.
One night later, Kentucky was the victim of an all-black Texas Western team in a historic championship game.
Mar. 27, 1978 – Duke’s run to the 1978 national title game was the stuff of legends. Bill Foster’s Blue Devils, last in the ACC a year earlier, started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. Kentucky, their opponent in the Checkerdome that Monday night, had a veteran team and had spent most of the year at No. 1.
The young Blue Devils knew no fear, but they were wedded to Foster’s 3-2 zone defense and Kentucky’s Jack Givens kept finding the holes in the zone. The 6-5 forward hit 18 of 29 shots from the floor and finished with a career-high 41 points. Duke got 20-plus points from stars Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks and Mike Gminski, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Wildcats.
There was one thrilling moment for Blue Devil fans late. Kentucky coach Joe Hall cleared his bench with just under two minutes to go and the ‘Cats up 12 – but Duke quickly cut the lead to four and forced Hall to re-insert his starters to clinch the 94-88 victory.
Nov. 17, 1979 and Mar. 13, 1980 – Two games that started and essentially ended Bill Foster’s last season at Duke.
No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Duke met in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield and the game turned into a titanic duel between Blue Devil senior center Mike Gminski (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Kentucky freshman Sam Bowie (22 points, 17 rebounds). But Duke also got 17 points from junior Gene Banks. Sophomore swing-man Vince Taylor, a Lexington native, matched Kentucky All-American Kyle Macy with 14 points.
Duke, which led most of the way before a late Kentucky rally, dominated the first overtime in the history of the series, winning 82-76 to open the season.
The same two teams met four months later in the NCAA Sweet 16. But this time, the matchup was on Kentucky’s home floor at Rupp Arena. The No. 4 ranked Wildcats were extremely confident of beating the No. 14 Blue Devils.
But Duke took a big early lead as Gminski (17 points, 7 rebounds) dominated a foul-plagued Bowie (2 points, 3 rebounds). The Devils led by 14 at the half, but Kentucky fought back behind unheralded forward Fred Cowan, who led both teams with 26 points. Duke never gave up the lead, but Kentucky, down one, had a shot to win – but Tayler, playing in his hometown, was all over Macy has he clanked a shot at the buzzer, giving Duke a 55-54 victory.
Duke’s NCAA run would end 48 hours later in the regional finals when Purdue knocked off the Devils.
Mar. 28, 1992 – Duke had won three straight games in the series when the two rivals met in the East Regional title game in Philadelphia.
The No. 1 Blue Devils were heavily favored over the No. 6 Wildcats, but Rick Pitino’s squad would take Mike Krzyzewski’s defending national champions to the wire in a game that would be voted by ESPN as the greatest college game ever played.
All-Americans Christian Laettner (31 points) and Jamal Mashburn (28 points) would duel, but both stars got strong support from the likes of Bobby Hurley (22 points, 10 assists),and Thomas Hill (19 points) on the Duke side; Sean Woods (21 points, 9 assists) and John Pelphrey (16 points) for the Wildcats.
Both teams had stars come off the bench – Grant Hill for Duke (11 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) and Dale Brown for the Wildcats (18 points).
The two teams ended regulation tied at 93-all. In the extra period, the lead swung back and forth with dizzying rapidity – five times in the last 35 seconds. Woods seemed to have won it with a miraculous bank shot over Laettner, but Duke got a timeout called with 2.1 seconds left.
That proved to be just enough time for Grant Hill to hit Laettner with a football pass at the foul line. Laettner, probably the calmest person in the Spectrum at that moment, patiently faked one direction, spun the other and nailed the 15-foot jumper that gave Duke the 104-103 victory.
It capped a perfect night for the Duke senior – he was 10-of-10 from the floor (including one 3-pointer) and 10-of-10 from the foul line.
A week later, Duke won its second straight national title in Minneapolis.
Mar. 22, 1998 – Top-seeded Duke appeared well on the way to delivering another crushing defeat to second-seeded Kentucky six years after the famous game in Philadelphia.
This meeting, played in the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg, was for the South regional championship. And with Duke up 17 with 12 minutes to play, the Blue Devils appeared poised to earn a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio.
But Kentucky, which had played in the two previous national title games (winning in 1996 and losing to Arizona in 1997), still had some fight left. Keyed by guards Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard, the ‘Cats reeled off a 17-3 run to get back in the game. The score was tied at 81-all with just over two minutes left when Scott Padgett hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Kentucky the lead.
Duke, which got strong performances from Trajan Langdon and Roshown McLeod, had one final chance, getting the ball back with just under five seconds left, down two. This time, there would be no Christian Laettner miracle – freshman Will Avery launched a running shot from 35-feet out, but it missed badly and Kentucky was able to escape with an 86-84 victory.
Dec. 18, 2001 – No. 8 Kentucky had No. 1 Duke on life support in the Jimmy V Classic at the Meadowlands, but a bold move by Mike Krzyzewski revived his sluggish team.
With the Blue Devils down 12 and just over 11 minutes to play, Krzyzewski pulled his five starters and inserted five bench warmers.
“We needed … like E.R.,” Krzyzewski said. “Those [electroshock] pads on the chest.”
K’s five subs provided that kind of jolt. Not only did they trim the Kentucky lead to nine over the next two minutes, when the starters returned, they played with new life – especially junior guard Jason Williams.
The eventual national player of the year scored 25 of his game-high 38 points after he returned from the bench, hitting 7-of-11 3-pointers.
“We had no answer for Jason Williams,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.
Williams’ heroics, along with some strong play by Mike Dunleavy (21 points and a team-high eight rebounds) enabled Duke to tie the game at 78 in regulation. The Blue Devils controlled the overtime to wrap up a 95-92 victory.
That game, almost 11 years ago, was the last meeting between Duke and Kentucky.