Duke met St. John’s on the afternoon of March 24, 1991 for the Midwest regional championship. It was a 4 P.M. tip-off, the last regional final. By that time North Carolina, Kansas and UNLV had already clinched spots in the Final Four.
This was the third time Duke and St. John’s had played in the NCAAs but the first time they had met this deep in the tournament.
The first time was in 1979, the infamous “Black Sunday,” when a depleted Duke team lost 80-78 to St. John’s in Reynolds Coliseum immediately after North Carolina lost to Pennsylvania. The twin upsets ended the possibility of the arch-rivals meeting for the East region title in Greensboro.
Duke got a measure of revenge in 1990, a second-round matchup. Duke trailed 61-53 with about nine minutes left when Billy Singleton stole the ball from Robert Brickey.
Well, he thought he did. The officials disagreed and called a foul on Singleton and then a technical on Singleton when he over-reacted. Duke turned the whole thing into a six-point possession and rode that momentum to a 76-72 win.
But St. John’s returned almost everyone from that team, including forward Malik Sealy, who averaged almost 23 points per game in 1991. On the other hand Duke lost senior starters Robert Brickey (22 points), Alaa Abdelnaby (17) and Phil Henderson (13) who combined for 52 of Duke’s 76 points in that 1990 game. Bobby Hurley had 10 points and seven assists but also five turnovers, while Christian Laettner missed all seven of his field-goal attempts and ended with six points.
And the Johnnies were playing almost as well as Duke, coming into the game after wins by 7, 8 and 17 points. Their 91-74 beat-down of fifth-ranked ranked Ohio State took out the region’s top seed.
They had every reason to be confident, especially after shooting 63 percent against the Buckeyes.
Point guard Jason Buchanan was the key to the suddenly potent St. John’s offense.
He had nine assists, six steals and only one turnover against Ohio State.
Before the game Mike Krzyzewski identified Buchanan as a focal point.
“You just want to take a little bit of his vision away. Lengthen his passes a few feet. Slow the velocity of the pass. Know you’re there so he’s not like a coach running an offense in drills.”
Buchanan scored first, Duke’s 2-0 deficit the first time Duke had trailed since the first half of the Northeast Louisiana game. After Laettner and Thomas Hill scored for Duke Chucky Sproling answered with a 3-pointer.
Then things started to go wrong for the Johnnies, horribly wrong.
St. John’s committed five turnovers by the first media timeout. Duke blanketed Sealy, sometimes with Thomas Hill, sometimes with Brian Davis. He only had two points over the first 16 minutes. Center Robert Werdann went down with a calf injury. He gamely tried to soldier on but couldn’t go, ending his afternoon with four points in 12 minutes. St. John’s lacked the depth and quality size to absorb this blow.
But perhaps most importantly Hurley imposed his will on Buchanan.
Hurley hit a 3 to put Duke up 13-7, then another for 22-15, then a third for 27-15. On the other end Buchanan couldn’t initiate the St. John’s offense and picked up his third foul on a frustration charge, taking a seat on the bench barely eight minutes into the contest.
Buchanan ended the game with six turnovers.
“I was trying to give him a little room so he couldn’t go around me,” Buchanan said of Hurley. “But when he started making those outside shots, there’s nothing you can do.”
“I knocked down the first couple of shots I got and that gave me a lot of confidence,” Hurley said. “The key was to get Buchanan out of the game.”
That third Hurley 3-pointer gave Duke its first double-digit lead and it never again dropped to single digits.
Grant Hill dunked after a St. John’s turnover, Billy McCaffrey hit a couple of pull-up jumpers, Hurley hit another 3.
Sealy hit a running 3 right before the buzzer but Duke still led 40-27 at intermission.
This was the third straight game Duke led by double-digits at halftime.
Duke exploded out of the locker room to open the second half. Laettner had a bucket and then a three-point play and Hurley scored four points and Duke led 50-28.
Sealy finally cranked up his offense and tried to lead his team back. In fact, he scored St. John’s’ first 11 points of the second half. Then Buchanan scored their next eight.
But while all this was going on Duke had six different players score. Duke did have a four-minute scoring drought but the closest St. John’s could get was 13 points, at 51-38 and then again at 57-44. Duke went on an 8-2 run after that and it was a wrap.
Hurley led everyone with 20 points and was named regional MVP after totaling 27 assists against four turnovers in four games.
Laettner added 19 points, Grant Hill 12.
Laettner and Hurley each had four steals, 6-4 Thomas Hill three blocks, once stuffing the 6-8 Sealy.
Sealy led St. John’s with 19 points, four more than Buchanan.
St. John’s outrebounded Duke 30-24 but shot only 44 percent from the field and turned it over 26 times. Singleton had eight of those turnovers.
Duke shot 52 percent and turned it over 18 times.
“I think they’re better than last year,” St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca said. “I think they’re quicker. They’ve always been known for their defense, but I think what really gets you is their offense. They spread the court. They break you down, and they take you one-on-one. Which really breaks basketball to its simplest form.”
“I’m shocked from what we felt at the beginning of the year,” Krzyzewski said.
“This is a really young team.”
One that was headed to the Final Four.
Come see us on the boards as we relive it!