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Which was better: ‘The Shot’ or ‘The Pass’?

You knew this was coming.


We’re coming up on 25 years since ‘The Shot’ (Christian Laettner’s version, not MJ’s). You may not have been alive to witness it (I certainly wasn’t), but you’ve no doubt seen it, and if you haven’t, let me suggest two things to you:

  1. First, for the love of god, get out from beneath the fifty-pound boulder you’ve been living under for the past quarter of a century. How are you even operating a computer right now?
  2. Second, go ahead and click the link I’ve so graciously embedded below. Honestly, even if you’ve seen it before, give it a watch anyway. You’ll need to have it fresh in your mind for later.

Simply astounding, isn’t it? The exclamation point at the end of what is perhaps the single greatest game in the history of college basketball.

Well, Northwestern had a moment of similar gravity last night when, with 1.7 seconds left in a game tied at 65, Dererk Pardon hauled in a full court heave from Nathan Taphorn, contorted his body out from underneath the rim and laid the ball back up and in at the buzzer, sealing what is definitely the most significant victory in Northwestern basketball history and perhaps clinching the Wildcats’ first ever NCAA Tournament berth.

You know what, I’m going to embed that link too. Give it a few more watches; I know you’re not tired of it yet.


That was less than 24 hours ago, but the second that shot went in, my mind was already racing, trying to place this moment of sheer euphoria for Wildcat fans everywhere in the history of the program and, more importantly, college basketball as a whole. And in the process of doing so, I couldn’t escape one question:

Was ‘The Pass’ (this is what I’ve decided to name the Pardon play for the purposes of this article, take it or leave it) better than ‘The Shot’?

The first thing we have to determine before we can hope to answer this undeniably important question is what ‘better’ means here, because, at first glance, this question seems awfully subjective. Well, never fear, because, being the objective journalist that I am, I’ve come up with a set of completely arbitrary parameters for what makes one play ‘better’ than another. There are five so that there’s no chance of a tie.

Take a look:

  1. Which play had the higher degree of difficulty?
  2. Which play made more people happy?
  3. Which play had the more intriguing underlying storyline?
  4. Which play meant more?
  5. Which play was more unbelievable?

Alright, let’s break it down. And let me remind you one more time that I am, indeed, an objective journalist.

Which play had the higher degree of difficulty?

This is, perhaps, the most important question, so we’ll start here. So much of what makes a play impressive is how difficult it would be to recreate and here we have two plays that, if replayed 100 times, probably don’t work out in 99 of said attempts.

To make this easier, let’s break down each play into two parts: the pass and the shot. The passes in each play (one delivered by Grant Hill and the other by Nathan Taphorn) we’ll call a wash. Both spanned the full length of the court and were into double coverage. All you need from your in-bounder on plays like these is to give the guy on the receiving end of the pass a chance to corral the ball. Both Taphorn and Hill do this perfectly.

In terms of the shot itself, I’m inclined to give the edge to Laettner. Pardon did have to lurch back to the baseline to catch Taphorn’s pass, while Laettner, who was squared up evenly with the baseline, caught the ball with relative ease. But the trajectory of the passes actually ended up playing to Pardon’s advantage. Although he did ultimately have to twist himself out from under the rim to get the game-winning shot off, Taphorn’s pass moved Pardon’s momentum towards the basket and set him up for a pretty point-blank opportunity once the ball was actually in his hands. Laettner, on the other hand, caught the ball with his back to the basket and still with two defenders in his face. Once in position, Pardon makes that layup nine times out of 10. Laettner having to fake to his right then turn over his left shoulder from the free-throw line with multiple hands in his face assuredly has a lower rate of success if played out multiple times.

It’s also worth mentioning that Laettner his that shot with his team down one and facing elimination in the Elite Eight. If Taphorn’s pass sails out of bounds or Pardon’s layup rolls of the rim, Northwestern still has a chance to win that game in overtime. The pressure and magnitude of the situation should factor into degree of difficulty. Round one goes to Laettner.

Advantage: ‘The Shot’

Which play made more people happy?

This is an easy one. Maybe the people are sick of hearing Northwestern fans lamenting their storied history of falling short come March, maybe the Wildcats are this year’s underdog you can’t help but root for, but it felt like the entire country was behind Northwestern last night and has been this entire season. Welsh-Ryan was certainly rocking like it never has before.

Even if all of that is hyperbole, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say everyone who didn’t either attend Duke or grow up in Durham despises Christian Laettner and everything the Duke Blue Devils stand for. You know how I know that? ESPN literally made a 30-for-30 titled “I Hate Christian Laettner”. What else do you need?

Advantage: ‘The Pass’

Which play had the more intriguing underlying storyline?

For ‘The Pass’, the question of an underlying storyline is obvious: with a win, Northwestern perhaps clinches its first NCAA Tournament berth in program history. This is a dead horse we at Inside NU have been pounding with a sledgehammer all season long and an inescapable reality that pervades every conceivable aspect of every Northwestern basketball season. This game and ‘The Pass’ are made especially significant given the late-season collapse Northwestern appeared trapped in until Pardon’s shot at the buzzer. Amazing how one play can change everything.

But people forget just how intriguing that Duke-Kentucky matchup was at the time. Kentucky was coming off a two-year postseason ban and looking to knock off the defending champion Blue Devils in the Elite Eight. Two storied basketball programs locked in a heated battle for 40 action-packed minutes (plus overtime). Not to mention the future NBA talent that was on display, from Grant Hill to Jamal Mashburn to, hell, even Laettner.

Both storylines are incredibly intriguing, of this there is no doubt. But for the sake of a Northwestern fan base more historically tortured than any sports team outside of Cleveland (until just this past year, what a coincidence), we’ll give this one to the ’Cats.

Advantage: ‘The Pass’

Which brings us to...

Which play meant more?

I left this question intentionally vague because that requires me to explain it more thoroughly and, quite honestly, I’m having fun with this.

It’s one thing if you’re asking which play meant more to its program. Laettner’s shot sent Duke to its ninth Final Four and the Blue Devils would go on to seize their second consecutive NCAA Championship, as well as their second title in program history, that year. All of those things are undeniably super important. Duke’s basketball program isn’t nearly as storied or universally hated as it is today if Laettner doesn’t hit that shot, Mike Krzyzewski might not be on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches...the entire course of college basketball history could have been altered.

But think of the potential impact Pardon’s layup could have for Northwestern. Not only would an NCAA Tournament berth this season get the weight of over a century of futility off the Wildcats’ back, it would also legitimize the program to potential recruits and television networks alike. It could put Northwestern basketball firmly ‘on the map’.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, though, this question isn’t all about what each play meant in the context of the programs. While this facet is important, at the end of the day, Laettner’s shot essentially decided a national champion in 1992. The magic of Pardon’s layup should hold up in the eyes of the Wildcat faithful, but, in terms of actual college basketball history, ‘The Shot’ meant more.

Advantage: ‘The Shot’

Which play was more unbelievable?

Here we are, tied 2-2 going into the final question. It’s almost too good to be true.

At the time of Laettner’s historic shot, Duke wasn’t quite the powerhouse that it is considered to be today. But, regardless, it was the dominant program of the time and its stock was only rising. There has always been a certain inevitability to Duke’s success, and I imagine if I had been alive to witness ‘The Shot’ that I would have simply rolled my eyes and flicked the television off, annoyed that the Blue Devils had somehow, some way, done it again.

With ‘The Pass’, this narrative is completely flipped. I’ve alluded to the troubled past that Northwestern basketball boasts and this is a reality that has only sunken in deeper with the team’s struggles in the most important stretch of games in the program’s history. With almost the same certainty that we know Duke will be near the top every season, we know Northwestern basketball will find a way to come up just (or a little more than just) short on an annual basis. Despite the optimism that most will claim when talking about this game in the future, I have no doubt that everyone in Welsh-Ryan Arena’s stomachs were in knots as the clock wound down in regulation, knowing in the deepest, darkest corner of their minds that if this game went to overtime, Michigan would undoubtedly pull away and stamp out the Wildcats’ best chance of dancing to date. Beyond the impossibility of Taphorn’s pass falling perfectly into Pardon’s arms and him recovering in time to make the shot, this is what made ‘The Pass’ so unbelievable: how quintessentially un-Northwestern it was to come up so big on a stage larger than life itself.

And so...

Advantage: ‘The Pass’

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 3-2 in favor of ‘The Pass’. And just like that, we’ve got ourselves a NEW ‘best’ play in the history of college basketball. Hooray for objectivity!

But in all seriousness, it appears we’re entering a new era of Northwestern sports, people. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.