Sports Vault: No Bearcat could ever forget the night UC 'out-Laettnered' Duke in the Alaska Shootout

It wasn't March, but a great moment in history

CINCINNATI -- Is Duke the most hated team in the country? Possibly.

They are consistently good -- and have been for decades. Their coach may be the best of all time. And they win with a giant sense of arrogance -- they know they are a premier program and they act like it. Plus, it doesn't hurt their cause that the institution is a symbol of academic excellence.

Add it all up and you've got a very hate-worthy program. North Carolina doesn't like them. Kentucky still hasn't forgiven Christian Laettner – and likely never will -- for his famous last-second shot in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. Connecticut feels the same way, having gotten the same treatment two seasons earlier.

That's what made the University of Cincinnati's victory over Duke in 1998 all the more special.

Forget the fact that it was in the Great Alaska Shootout. Forget that it occurred at the time most raves are finishing up, limiting the number of people who were watching. It doesn't matter.

Because Cincinnati beat Duke.

And the way they did it was also particularly heart-wrenching for Blue Devils fans.

As Mike DeCourcy reported for The Cincinnati Enquirer on Nov. 29, 1998, "Duke got out-Laettnered."

Let's set the scene.

 

Cincinnati, ranked 15th in the country, faced No. 1-ranked Duke in the finals of the 1998 Great Alaska Shootout Tournament. Duke sported talented guard William Avery, big man Elton Brand and All-American shooter Trajan Langdon. Cincinnati countered with Melvin Levett, Kenyon Martin, Pete Mickeal and Ryan Fletcher.

In the first half, the Bearcats looked unbeatable, building a 19-point lead and playing a suffocating man-to-man defense that prevented the Blue Devils from driving to the basket. Cincinnati went into halftime with a 10-point lead.

But the wheels were coming off. Over the course of 11 minutes and 25 seconds spread over the latter part of the first half and the start of the second, Duke came all the way back. (They're good, remember?) Avery finally tied the score at 55 with 12:15 to play.

28 Nov 1998: Head coach Bob Huggins of the Cincinnati Bearcats looks on during the Carrs Great Alaska Shootout Game against the Duke Blue Devils at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, Alaska.

''We had a lot of chances to pack it in,'' coach Bob Huggins said afterward. ''They're a great basketball team. They play so hard, and they're so well-coached and do so many things to win games. They're a deserving No. 1. But I was telling my guys, when you're ranked No. 1, there's a lot of pressure to win. It's also true when you're way ahead of No. 1, there's a lot of pressure to stay there."

UC would dig their hole even deeper, eventually falling behind 61-57.

''I did think when we were down four, I said, 'Well, at least we came out and had a good showing,' '' Levett told the Enquirer. ''But something inside us wouldn't let us quit.''

The Bearcats were helped by switching to a zone defense, which clogged up the lane and limited drives to the hoop. Three straight possessions resulted in empty trips for the Blue Devils, and Cincinnati came back to tie the game.

Missed free throws (mixed with big three-point plays) over the last two minutes by both squads gave Cincinnati a two-point lead, which Avery quickly erased with a drive down the right side.

Tie game. Three seconds left.

What to do? If you're Cincinnati, you dredge up some unforgettable Duke history.

It was 1992, when Duke legend Laettner took a length-of-the-court pass from Grant Hill and sank a 17-foot jumper with 2.1 seconds left to send the Blue Devils into the Final Four.

Cincinnati ran the same play.

Called "Home Run," power forward Ryan Fletcher -- a former high school quarterback at Middletown High -- threw a three-quarter-court pass to Martin, who jumped and caught it at the foul line.

That's where the Cincinnati and Duke plays diverge. Instead of turning and shooting, as Laettner had, Martin noticed an open Levett streaking toward the hoop off of a back-cut.

''I saw Mel out of the corner of my eye,'' Martin told DeCourcy. ''Three seconds is a lot of time. I just didn't want to throw it too hard.''

Martin hit him in stride, and Levett soared for the game-winning dunk.

The Bearcats fans had to sweat through one last play, as Duke attempted their own version of another Home Run, but an Avery shot was too late. Bearcats 77, Duke 75.

By that time it was after 2 in the morning in Cincinnati -- and a late-night party in Clifton.

 

''It was a great pass,'' Levett said afterward. ''I didn't take a dribble. I just wanted to get in the air as quickly as possible. I never thought we'd be going home as champions of this tournament.''

 ''I thought they were the better team,'' Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ''Certainly they played harder than we did for the 40 minutes.''

Avery led Duke with 30 points while Brand scored 12. Levett finished with 25 for the game, the last two cementing his place in Cincinnati lore. Mickeal added 17 and guard Alvin Mitchell scored 14.

28 Nov 1998: Forward Kenyon Martin #4 of the Cincinnati Bearcats in action during the Carrs Great Alaska Shootout Game against the Duke Blue Devils at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, Alaska.

For Cincinnati, the game would be the highlight of the season. The Bearcats would start the season 15-0, but finish 27-6, including an upset 64-54 loss to Temple in the NCAA's second round.

Duke would have only one loss during the regular season -- to Cincinnati. The next time they lost was to Connecticut in the national championship, 77-74.

Prior to that final, some thought Duke was unbeatable. Levett knew that wasn't true, and in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said as much. The Bearcats had done it.

"It showed that we weren't afraid of them. We weren't intimidated," Levett told the Times' Robyn Norwood. "We met the challenge. We played hard, played aggressive. We beat them at their own game."

Norwood asked if anyone else could beat Duke that season.

"I don't know. UConn, maybe," Levett said. "I always tell people, 'Nobody now, because we're not in it.' "

In 2000, Steven Sharp remembered the game and wrote about it on Lance McAllister's blog.

"I'll never forget how I found out about the end of this game," he wrote. "I was living in the Bluffs, in Covington. The game started around midnight. I fell asleep. I had to get up that Sunday morning to host the Bengals pregame show on 1160 WBOB. (The Bengals would lose to Jacksonville 34-17). I woke up and rewound my VCR and stopped it when I (saw) UC celebrating on the court. I watched the final five minutes before leaving for the station."

Many fans would do the same. But for those who stayed up to watch, they saw history as it occurred.

 

"That was a very special moment," Levett told Norwood. "It wasn't in the NCAA Tournament, but it was a shining moment. It wasn't in March, but it was the shining moment of our season. Of my career. People will look back on it."

He's right about that. No Bearcat will ever forget when Cincinnati out-Duked one of the most hated teams in the country.

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