How March got its Madness
They belong to an exclusive fraternity, one that requires not a secret handshake or twill blazer for membership but a shot that beats the clock.
They delivered the most iconic moments in NCAA tournament history. They spawned the trademarked nickname for the event that ends in Minneapolis in a dozen days: March Madness. They are the buzzer-beater brotherhood.
Some of their shots were the result of plays with cool names. There was "Home Run" and "Pacer" and "Attack." Some happened after a mad scramble ended with the ball in their hands. They all landed on the right side of hero vs. heartbreak.
Their shots remain suspended in time, as stuck to them as a birthmark. They get reminded of their shots weekly, if not daily, whether it is a few years removed or decades later. Sports fans stop them and ask about it in supermarkets, at airports, on golf courses, even at funerals, which strangely happened to one of them last summer.
Their one shining moment will never end.
The number of members in this select group is debatable, but their unending impact on college basketball is not. Here are the stories of six of these shots that will live forever, told this winter to the Star Tribune by players — no, legends — who were on the court for these moments that gave us "Madness."
Laettner's unmatched legacy
The play was called "Home Run." Duke had practiced it all four years of Christian Laettner's career and attempted it unsuccessfully in a regular-season game his senior season.
But with their quest to repeat as national champions on the line, the Blue Devils turned "Home Run" into a signature moment in NCAA tournament history.
Duke trailed Kentucky 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left in overtime of the 1992 East Regional final. Grant Hill took the ball out of bounds underneath his own goal and fired a baseball pass to Laettner at the opposite free-throw line. A perfect strike.
Duke had tried a similar play in a loss to Wake Forest earlier in the season. But Hill's pass curved and Laettner stepped out of bounds as he caught the ball.
"It was kind of fresh in our minds," Laettner said. "We had practiced it plenty of times over the years. That's what Coach K [Krzyzewski] is really good at. Coach K worked on stuff like that."
Laettner did the rest. After catching the ball, he took one dribble with his back to the basket, turned and shot a 15-footer fading away. Swish.
"I get chills every time I see it, every time I see how the bench reacts," Laettner said. "The best part for me is how the bench reacts even before the ball goes in the net. You look at my bench as I'm catching the ball, they're starting to jump up and down already [thinking], 'Oh my God, we've got a chance, he's getting it in his hands.' I love to see how high Marty Clark jumps when the ball goes through the net and the whole celebration. It's just awesome."
Laettner said he gets reminded of Home Run almost every time he's recognized in public.
"If I'm up at Lake of the Woods muskie fishing, maybe no one mentions it to me," he said. "If I'm at a resort up there, someone will say it and remind me. But if I'm in the grocery store or the mall or the airport, it's getting mentioned every day."
While Laettner is asked about the moment often, no one has asked him to re-create it in a long time.
"I would say the first 10 years, I probably re-created it once a year," he said. "I probably re-enacted 10-12 times those first 10 years. I probably made it most every time. One time we had to do it a second time and the crowd booed me when I missed. When I made it, they went crazy. So it's a lot of fun."
He needed his hug
Dereck Whittenburg didn't make a buzzer-beater. His desperation three-pointer came up just short, but his teammate Lorenzo Charles was in the right place, right time for a beautiful finish.
Charles grabbed the air ball at the rim and dunked it as time expired to seal one of the greatest upsets in tournament history as North Carolina State toppled mighty Houston 54-52 in the 1983 national championship game.
"My instincts were, the clock is running out," Whittenburg said. "We've got to make a play."
N.C. State had called timeout with 44 seconds left. Coach Jim Valvano drew up their "five play" — an action that was supposed to milk the clock before creating a one-on-one opportunity for one of their guards.
Except Houston switched defenses during the timeout and went to a trap.
"We were like, wait a minute, we didn't talk about this," Whittenburg said. "We started passing the ball around."
Thurl Bailey got the ball in the corner with less than 10 seconds left but didn't take the shot. He passed back out top to Whittenburg, who nearly had the ball stolen. He corralled the ball with 4 seconds left and launched a three-pointer from 30 feet.
"When I got the ball at the top, there's a clock in your head," he said. "I knew time was running out. That was the longest 44 seconds of my life. When I got the ball, I knew I didn't have time to look at the clock."
He also didn't have time to think about how far he was from the basket.
"I was doing the NBA three back then when there was no NBA three," Whittenburg said. "I had no thought about how far I was out."
His shot was short, but Charles was standing under the rim, near Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, in position for the putback.
"I'm a shooter, I think it's going in," Whittenburg said. "Obviously, there was one guy that saw that it was short. Luckily, Olajuwon didn't go up there because he was nervous about goaltending. He was stunned."
The reaction became as memorable as the shot — Valvano sprinting around the court, looking for someone. Turns out, he was searching for Whittenburg.
The backstory: Whittenburg hugged Valvano after every game during N.C. State's postseason run. That became their thing for eight consecutive games.
Whittenburg took a detour this time. He ran to hug his parents in the crowd first.
"[Valvano] is looking for me," Whittenburg said. "That's why he was running around crazy. He just jumped on the pile because he didn't know what to do. That's the story about that."
Valvano died of cancer in 1993, and Charles died in a car crash in 2011. Whittenburg works as an associate athletic director at in N.C. State, so he's reminded of his shot often.
"Every day of my life since it happened somebody has said something about the '83 championship and the last play," he said. "It's stunning to me that such a moment, 36 years later, people are still talking about it."
Why is that?
"Because of the way ours happened," he said. "Nobody expected N.C. State to be there. Nobody knew who this Jim Valvano guy was. We became the darlings because we gave people hope. People gravitated to us because we're the underdogs. We were that David and Goliath story that people look for."
Take it to the basket, Tyus
UCLA was indeed Goliath in 1995, entering the tournament ranked No. 1. The Bruins would go on to win the national championship, but not before mad-dash heroics by point guard Tyus Edney. His coast-to-coast layup in the second round would save their season.
Missouri scored with 4.8 seconds left to take a 74-73 lead over the No. 1 seed. UCLA called timeout.
"That was a long walk back to the bench," Edney said. "The year before we lost in the first round. That was kind of our fuel going into that season, to not let that happen again. And then for that to happen, to have a chance to not win that game."
Ed O'Bannon was UCLA's star. Edney figured he would take the last shot. But coach Jim Harrick pulled Edney aside as the huddle broke and instructed him to take the ball to the basket.
"Walking out, Ed is yelling at me, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball,' " Edney said. "My conclusion was I need to get this ball down the floor as fast as I can and then see what happens. That was my first job. Probably around midcourt where I changed directions, I saw an opening for me to get to the rim."
Edney got the inbounds pass near his own free-throw line and took off. He reached midcourt with 3 seconds left. He didn't break stride, heading right for the basket.
"We used to do a drill in practice where you had to dribble end to end in 3 seconds," Edney said. "I had an internal clock. I knew once I didn't get stopped that I had a chance to get there."
He pulled up inside the lane with less than a second on the clock and lofted a floater over the outstretched arms of 6-9 Derek Grimm.
"It was almost like a hook around his arm," Edney said. "I had to shoot around his arm to get it off. He probably was told not to foul, which was correct. My thought was get to the rim or get fouled. He did what he was supposed to do in my opinion. He walled up. He was big. It was a tough shot."
The Bruins won three of their next four tournament games by double digits to win the national title and finish 32-1.
"That's what's satisfying about it," Edney said. "It seems like every championship team has a game or two where they're on the ropes. I think it helped us get over the hump of that game. The team refocused and rallied around it. We played at our max level every game."
Edney's Twitter avatar is a picture of his shot. Now, an assistant coach at UCLA, Edney also walks by a framed picture of his shot every day in the basketball office.
Belly-flopping into history
The play was called "Pacer." Valparaiso practiced it every few weeks. It was designed for a last-second shot along the sideline.
The Crusaders attempted it once during the regular season but it failed. The initial pass was off target so they changed their personnel in case the opportunity presented itself again.
That moment came in 1998's first round. Valpo was the No. 13 seed, facing Ole Miss.
The Crusaders trailed 69-67 when Bryce Drew's three-pointer from the left wing missed with 5 seconds left.
"I really had a peace about it, strangely," he said. "I wasn't panicked."
Valparaiso fouled Ansu Sesay, the SEC Player of the Year. He missed the first free throw and Valpo called timeout to set up a play. Sesay also missed the second free throw, and the ball bounced around before going out of bounds along the baseline.
With only 2.5 seconds left, the Crusaders didn't have enough time to run their initial play. So they quickly switched to Pacer.
Jamie Sykes inbounded the ball along the baseline. He threw a baseball pass three-quarters of the court to Bill Jenkins, who outjumped two defenders. In one fluid motion while in the air, Jenkins caught, whirled and passed to Drew running along the sideline.
Drew caught the pass in stride behind the three-point line with 1.8 seconds left, elevated, released and watched the ball swish through the net at the buzzer.
"It was so quick how it happened," Drew said. "It was just a blur. From the time [Sesay] missed the second free throw was a blur."
The entire sequence was poetry in motion. Two perfect passes and a perfect shot.
"The first pass is extremely hard with the guy over the ball and putting it right where he put it," Drew said. "The second pass is a great athlete doing it in the air."
Drew's reaction became as memorable as his shot. He ran to the center of the court and dived, as if belly-flopping into a swimming pool. His teammates piled onto his back.
"We went back to the hotel and they played it on TV," he said. "When I saw it I honestly had no clue I did that. It was so spontaneous."
The impact of that shot on Valparaiso's program and entire community hit Drew when the team returned to campus.
"It was the first time our school had ever won a game in the NCAA tournament," said Drew, who was recently fired as Vanderbilt's coach. "When we got back to campus, we had over 100 different media outlets there waiting for us. Our bus couldn't even pull up to the gym because people were lined up in the streets. They had a security line to get us through to the gym. It was incredible."
'This is going in'
Northern Iowa wasn't in danger of losing in regulation in the first round in 2016, but a game-tying shot by Texas in the final seconds made overtime seem inevitable. A floater by Longhorns guard Isaiah Taylor had tied it, 72-72 with 2.6 seconds left.
"I remember looking at the scoreboard, a quick glance," Northern Iowa's Paul Jesperson said. "I also remember turning and looking down the floor like, where is everybody? What is the defense doing?"
Jesperson drifted up court, a few strides short of half court. He took a quick peek to see where Texas' defenders were before catching the inbounds pass.
"You want to get a long outlet [pass]," he said. "I know a lot of guys would be running up so I wanted to get a deep outlet and get a head start running into it."
He took one dribble to the middle of the court and let fly a running half-courter. The ball left his fingertips with 1.3 seconds left.
"I knew I had a few dribbles before I get a decent look off," he said.
The ball hit the backboard and went in. The bank was open, giving No. 11 seed Northern Iowa the upset.
"Honestly, when I first let it go, I thought it was net for sure," he said. "I knew it was right on line. You know when you let a shot go and it's like, 'OK, this is going in.' It was kind of one of those. I could tell it was straight on line. I had a good feeling when it left my hand."
He had an even better feeling when the ball went through the net. Jesperson stoically raised both arms as his teammates stormed the court to hug him.
"It was a crazy feeling," Jesperson said. "I dreamt about that so many times since I was probably 5 years old. I have rehearsed hitting a buzzer-beater like that. So it was almost like it was calm in my head when it happened. Everybody reacts differently. It was like, it finally came true."
Shot was a springboard to history
Loyola Chicago became the darlings of March Madness last spring. Inspired by Sister Jean, the Ramblers advanced to the Final Four as an 11th seed. And that historic run started with a first-round upset of Miami, on a last-second shot by Donte Ingram.
The Ramblers trailed 62-61 as they raced the ball up court. They had a timeout but elected not to use it. They had practiced that scenario, which they called "Attack."
"Coach had a thing, sometimes we were better off going into attack in those situations at the end of the half or at end of the game," Ingram said.
Guard Marques Townes sliced to the sideline. Ingram trailed him, calling for the ball.
"[Townes] sucked two guys to him," Ingram said. "I did my verbal. I was pretty deep so my guy wasn't close to me."
Ingram caught the ball with 2.8 seconds left. He was so deep that his feet were on the edge of the large March Madness logo that covers center court.
"I knew the odds of me getting to the rim with 2 seconds were low," he said. "I knew I had to take that shot when I had the space."
He had plenty of room to get off his jump shot. He started backpedaling as soon as he landed back on the floor. The ball splashed through the net with 0.3 seconds left.
"When I let it go, I knew it was good," he said. "I was at half court before the ball even went in."
Loyola's remarkable run included three game-winning shots in the final 10 seconds of games to reach the Final Four, but Ingram's shot was the buzzer-beater that started it all.
"Obviously, when you hit a shot like that, it's everywhere," he said. "Everybody across the country is watching.
"You grow up as a kid seeing people hit those big shots. Those iconic moments. It was a blessing for me to be in that position. It's something that me and my team will never forget."