After a week of talk and anticipation the 1991 Final Four got underway with an upset.
Kansas defeated North Carolina 79-73, a game remembered today largely because Tar Heels coach Dean Smith was ejected with 35 seconds left after picking up his second technical foul.
Could Duke pull off an even bigger upset, taking down the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, the tournament’s prohibitive favorite?
Let’s go to the scorecard. We start with Larry Johnson, the consensus national player of the year and a matchup nightmare. The 6-7, 250-pound Johnson was a rare blend of strength, athleticism and skill.
The other forward was Stacey Augmon, an athletic 6-8 lefty. Augmon was the nation’s best defender and joined Johnson as a first-team All-American. Greg Anthony was arguably the nation’s best pass-first point guard. This trio would go on to play 36 combined years in the NBA.
Anderson Hunt was the other guard. He never played in the NBA. But he led UNLV with 29 points in the 1990 title-game rout. And it wasn’t just Duke. Hunt was UNLV’s second-leading scorer in 1991, at around 17 points per game.
Rounding out the starting lineup was old what’s his name, don’t tell me, right on the tip of my tongue.
If you came up with George Ackles, give yourself a pat on the back. The 6-9 Ackles was the kind of glue guy championship teams need.
But Mike Krzyzewski didn’t think George Ackles was the kind of guy who would beat his team.
But Johnson was.
Krzyzewski decided to front Johnson with Greg Koubek or Brian Davis or Tony Lang, whoever was playing forward opposite Grant Hill. Hill would have Augmon. Laettner would play free safety, not completely ignoring Ackles but staying close enough to Johnson for the double team when needed.
The matchup mismatches ran both ways. Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian freely confessed that he didn’t have anyone capable of guarding Laettner.
He was right.
Vegas appeared to win the opening tip. But Grant Hill outworked Anthony and hit a layup.
It was only two points but it was a message sent.
I asked Hill about this play a few years ago.
“It set the tone,” he told me. “It was almost like a steal off the tap. It wasn’t the kind of game where we could get behind early and ease back in. We came out ready. We let them know they weren’t going to punk us, weren’t going to scare us.”
Hunt answered with a 3 but Laettner hit a 3, Grant Hill hit a layup, Laettner hit a pair of foul shots, then Laettner and Laettner again, then Grant Hill.
Duke was up 15-6, all 15 points by Laettner (9) and Hill (6). The question on everyone’s mind had been answered. Duke looked Vegas in the eye and didn’t blink. The demons had been exorcised.
It wasn’t sustainable of course. Tarkanian went to his so-called “amoeba” defense, a hybrid 1-3-1 zone, man-to-man. Vegas continued to switch defenses throughout the game.
But more importantly Vegas started crashing their offensive boards with a vengeance.
The 1991 Duke team did lots of things well. Rebounding was not one of them. Duke outrebounded opponents by about two rebounds per game, Vegas by about eight. Vegas had Johnson at forward, Duke had a forward contingent that looked like the world’s tallest cross-country team.
Ackles, Anthony and Augmon converted on the offensive boards. At one point the Runnin’ Rebels held a 14-0 edge in the second-chance points.
They caught up at 18-18, took a 21-20 lead and extended it to 23-20 on a Johnson offensive rebound.
This was the first of several points when Duke had to dig deep and see what they found.
What they found was a spectacular Hurley-to-Grant Hill pass in transition, an offensive rebound by Laettner—Duke’s first of the game— and a 3-pointer by Hurley.
Game on. And what a game it was. After UNLV cut that early Duke lead to 15-10 neither team led by more than six points, the latter when a Hurley 3 and two Laettner foul shots put Duke up 37-31. But UNLV closed the half with a 12-4 run, seven of those points by Anthony and took a 43-41 lead into intermission.
“We were not feeling down at all,” Koubek told me. “We felt quite the opposite. We were doing things the right way.”
Laettner had 20 points in the first half. Vegas started doubling, even tripling him. But Duke found other weapons, especially the unheralded Davis who kept finding and exploiting driving lanes created by the extra attention given to Laettner.
It got chippy, occasionally more than chippy. UNLV expected to intimidate opponents physically and psychologically and Duke was having none of it. Anthony, Thomas Hill, Augmon and Hunt all hit the floor hard, took a deep breath, got up and soldiered on. Johnson was hit with a technical.
Koubek recalled Johnson giving him a cheap-shot elbow to the head going back up court.
“It hurt,” he told me. “But it was a good hurt. I knew he was getting frustrated.”
Duke led by three at 57-54, by four at 61-57 by five at 64-59 but it was Hunt and Anthony who kept Vegas from losing contact.
Hunt put UNLV up 66-65 with a 3-point play. That was the first of seven lead changes in a row. The most consequential may have been two Thomas Hill foul shots that gave Duke a 67-66 lead, the foul shots coming on Anthony’s fourth foul.
Tarkanian had a real dilemma. A year earlier Georgia Tech had his team on the ropes in the Final Four when point guard Kenny Anderson picked up his fourth foul. Cremins sat him down, Tech lost its momentum and then the game.
And Tark didn’t really have a quality backup.
He gave Anthony a brief respite, then put him back in.
The gamble seemed to pay off. UNLV took a 72-71 lead, then 74-71, then got the ball back with that three-point lead.
Then the game’s key play. Anthony tried to drive, Brian Davis beat him to the spot and Anthony fouled out on the charge.
The Vegas snake had lost its head.
“When Greg was out of there, we were a little out of sync,” Tarkanian admitted after the game, a masterful understatement.
Vegas briefly extended the lead with Anthony out, getting a stop and an Ackles stick-back.
Duke was down 76-71 with barely three minutes left, the dream slipping away.
What followed was a remarkable closing run. Hurley hit a 3, arguably the biggest shot of his career, one of the biggest shots in Duke history. Duke’s defense forced the rudderless Rebels into a shot clock violation; keep in mind there was a 45-second shot clock in those days.
Brian Davis put Duke back on top with a gutsy baseline drive, converting the bank shot, drawing the foul and hitting the freebie.
Johnson got an offensive rebound with 49 seconds left and drew a foul. He missed both foul shots but got a do-over when Thomas Hill was called for a lane violation on the second miss.
Johnson tied it.
Duke could almost run the clock down. But Thomas Hill had hit a short jumper to beat Georgia Tech earlier in the season and he thought he had the same shot.
He missed. But Laettner grabbed the offensive rebound, with 12.7 seconds left and drew a foul. Nothing but net twice and it was 79-77.
Grant Hill told me Duke was just where it wanted to be.
“We wanted to win it with our D. That’s who we are. One possession and we win. Be alert, be on point, communicate.”
Plenty of time for the Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV had two first-team All-Americans on the floor. The plan was to get Johnson open for a 3 and the win.
Grant Hill had Augmon locked up, Hunt was trailing the play, Anthony was on the bench. Johnson did get open, for a fraction of a second, the game in his hands. But just as Krzyzewski had told his team over and over again there would come a time when the favorites’ lack of experience in close games would come back to haunt them and this was the moment.
Johnson hesitated, lost his opening and kicked it back to Hunt, whose desperation 3 was not even close.
Final Duke 79 UNLV 77.
Laettner led Duke with 28 points but Davis was second for Duke, with 15. Hurley had 12 points and seven assists, Grant Hill 11 points.
Hunt led everyone with 29 points. Anthony had 19. But Johnson (13) and Augmon (6) were held to 20 points below their combined season average, shooting 8-for-20 from the field. UNLV outrebounded Duke 39-21 but had two more turnovers and shot only 46 percent from the field, to Duke’s 52 percent. Duke won the game from the foul line, hitting 17-of-21 (81 percent) to UNLV’s 9-for-15 (60 percent).
But this wasn’t a game for stats. It was a game for the ages. A few years ago AP ranked this as the fifth-best NCAA Tournament game ever played.
Krzyzewski certainly doesn’t disagree.
“The ‘91 Duke-UNLV game will rank against any other great game” he told me via email a few years ago. “You don’t have many programs coming into a game winning 45 games in a row and being the previous national champions playing a team with the pedigree of Duke seeking its first national championship.”
“We became an elite program that night,” Grant Hill summed up.
But the job wasn’t finished yet. One to go.
Come see us on the boards as we relive it!