The Luckiest Play in the History of Kentucky Basketball

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 23, 2018

Cameron Mills (Kentucky 21) and Trajan Langdon (Duke 21)
Cameron Mills (Kentucky 21) and Trajan Langdon (Duke 21)Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Even the greatest teams need a little bit of luck.

Kentucky's men's basketball program leads all active Division I schools in wins, winning percentage and NCAA tournament appearances. The Wildcats have won the granddaddy of tournaments eight times, trailing only UCLA (11) in the national championships department.

In the 1998 South Regional final against Duke, though, Kentucky needed one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of college hoops to improve those marks in the record books.

As an added bonus, the miraculous victory exorcised some demons from six years prior.

If you've ever seen an NCAA tournament highlight reel, you probably know the reference there.

2.1 seconds.

Grant Hill to Christian Laettner.

The phenomenon in Philadelphia caused heartbreak in Lexington, as the Wildcats came one Blue Devils Hail Mary away from reaching the 1992 Final Four.

Facing that foe for the first time since that infamous Elite Eight showdown, No. 2 seed Kentucky fell into a gigantic early hole against No. 1 seed Duke.

Led by Roshown McLeod and Trajan Langdon, the Blue Devils could do no wrong for the first third of the game. With 7:30 remaining in the first half, they were a blistering 16-of-20 from the field (80 percent) and had not yet committed a turnover. Kentucky kept pace for a little while, but after a 17-0 Duke run, the Wildcats trailed 38-20.

They went on a 12-0 run of their own to trim the deficit to six points, but Duke pushed the lead back to 10 by halftime and was up by a commanding 71-54 margin with 9:30 to go.

Even in a battle between evenly matched opponents, that type of gap is almost insurmountable in that amount of time. KenPom.com data doesn't quite go back to 1998, but we can use the 2018 national championship as a guide. Villanova led Michigan by a 16-point margin with just under 10 minutes left in the game, at which point the Wolverines had a 1.5 percent chance of victory, per KenPom. (They lost by 17.)

Safe to assume Kentucky also had about a 1-in-100 chance of pulling off the comeback.

But the Wildcats didn't need nine-and-a-half minutes to storm back to within striking distance.

Heck, they didn't even need three minutes to do that.

While Duke went ice cold, five different Wildcats combined for 16 points on Kentucky's next five possessionsmade possible by a flagrant foul by McLeod that resulted in two free-throw attempts and the ball.

Heshimu Evans and Scott Padgett made back-to-back three-pointers to get the party started. After a Wayne Turner and-1 on a layup, it was Allen Edwards' turn to drain a trey. Jeff Sheppard made both free throws after McLeod's elbow to his jaw, followed by Turner's floater in the lane.

Just like that, it was 72-70 with 6:40 remaining.

None of that was the luckiest play in Kentucky history, though. That sequence simply set the stage.

Trailing 79-77 with a little over two minutes left, Turner drove toward the baseline before attempting a bit of a wild, spinning, fadeaway jumper. Hard to blame the point guard for forcing something in that moment, considering he had scored nine of Kentucky's last 17 points and was consistently finding space for his mid-range floater.

However, he missed a little long with three Blue Devils ready in the paint to corral the rebound.

Except they didn't.

EvansKentucky's 6'6" sixth manwas the only blue shirt within 10 feet of the ball. Langdon was boxing him out by directing him under the basket while both McLeod and Shane Battier went up for the rebound. At least nine times out of 10, someone from Duke comes down with that ball without much of a fight.

But while the 6'8" Battier and 6'8" McLeod went up to grab it, Evans treated the situation like a jump ball, swatting it through McLeod's hands, out to the three-point line and directly to Cameron Mills.

Without hesitation, Mills took aim at the most important shot of his career.

Though the senior was a 47.4 percent three-point shooter in his four years at Kentucky, he was an unlikely hero, to say the least. Factoring in the pressure of the moment and his recent struggles, there's no way that shot goes in 47 times out of 100.

Mills was Kentucky's eighth-leading scorer on the season, and he did most of his work against lackluster competition. In eight regular-season games against ranked opponents, he scored a grand total of 16 points, shooting 4-of-16 from the field.

Moreover, to that point in the tournament, he had missed all six of his field-goal attempts and had not yet taken a shot against Duke.

He was the furthest thing from being in any sort of groove.

Given the other options at Tubby Smith's disposal, it's hard to believe Mills was even in the game at this critical juncture. Both Edwards and Nazr Mohammed were on the bench even though each scored in double figures in each of Kentucky's first three tournament games.

Nevertheless, Mills calmly stepped into the shot and hit nothing but the bottom of the net to give Kentucky its first lead of the night.

Duke retook the lead on its subsequent possession, meaning it was Padgett's triple with 40 seconds remaining that put Kentucky ahead for good. Duke had a chance to win it in dramatic fashion once again, down 86-84 with the ball with 4.5 seconds remaining. But rather than a repeat of Laettner's magic, William Avery's running heave from about 35 feet away slammed off the backboard and fell harmlessly to the ground.

So, no, Mills' bucket didn't win the game. But it was the straw that broke the camel's back—the culmination of a comeback two hours (six years?) in the making.

Without that unlikely three-pointer, Kentucky might have never gotten over the hump to take the lead and win the game. And without winning that game, the Wildcats obviously would not have been able to win the 1998 national championship.

        

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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