College basketball lost two coaching giants last month. Lute Olson died August 27, John Thompson died three days later.
Both were giants in the literal sense. Olson was 6-4, Thompson 6-10. But of course I mean the term in the more figurative sense. Both men coached multiple teams into the Final Four, both won an NCAA title and both are members are the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
And both squared off against Mike Krzyzewski in some consequential games. Quantity? Not so much. Quality? Very much so.
Let’s start with Olson. He was so associated with his long and distinguished stint at Arizona that many forget that Arizona was not his first rodeo. Olson worked his way up through the ranks, high school, junior college, mid-major (Long Beach State) before becoming head coach at Iowa for the 1974-’75 season.
Olson turned around a moribund Iowa program, leading them to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and the 1980 Final Four.
Iowa made that Final Four by overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit in the Elite Eight title game to a Georgetown team coached by, you guessed it, John Thompson.
Olson never coached against Duke while at Iowa. He left that school for Arizona following the 1983 season, citing a need for a change.
He took over an Arizona program that had just completed a 4-24 season.
Three years later Arizona won the Pac-10 title.
Olson and Duke first squared off on December 30, 1987, in Tucson. It was the title game of the four-team Fiesta Bowl Classic. The Wildcats were led by junior forward Sean Elliott and senior guard Steve Kerr and were ranked number one in the AP poll. Duke was led by junior post Danny Ferry and was ranked ninth.
Both teams were undefeated. Duke beat Florida 93-70 in the Fiesta opener, led by Kevin Strickland’s 21 points.
Arizona defeated Michigan State 78-58.
Beating that Arizona team at McKale Arena was always going to be an uphill battle. Arizona jumped to a 46-37 halftime lead and held off several comeback attempts. The final was 91-85.
Ferry played like an All-American, with 25 points and seven rebounds. But so did Elliott, with 31 points. The difference was at the foul line, where the home team got to the line 42 times, making 32. Duke was 17-of-22 from the line.
Arizona was called for 18 fouls. Duke was called for 30.
Kerr, incidentally, was held to nine points.
Both teams advanced to the 1988 Final Four later that season. Duke had taken out top-ranked Temple in the Elite Eight and entered the Final Four as the fifth-ranked team against unranked Kansas. Second-ranked Arizona played fourth-ranked Oklahoma.
Had the games played to seed Duke and Arizona would have met for the NCAA title. Instead, both lost and Kansas defeated Oklahoma in the finals.
Duke and Arizona met the following season at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena, aka the Meadowlands, a late February matchup
By this point Ferry and Elliott were seniors and were poised to split most of the national player-of-the-year awards. Duke was ranked ninth in the AP poll, Arizona second, behind only Oklahoma.
This game is remembered today as one of the few times Christian Laettner did not come through in the clutch. Laettner was a freshman, a promising role player but still a role player.
But it took a great Duke rally to reach that point. Duke scored on one of its first 13 possessions, three of its first 19. It was 18-3, then 30-11, then 37-19 with only four minutes left in the opening half.
But Ferry and Phil Henderson led a comeback. Ferry hit a three right before the buzzer and Duke went into the locker room down only six, at 38-32.
Duke opened the second half with a 9-0 run, spurred by a Quin Snyder three-pointer and opened up a 48-40 lead with 15:34 left.
Now it was time for Arizona to regroup. They did, an 8-0 run.
The teams traded baskets and leads down the stretch. Elliott broke a 70-70 tie with a three-pointer. Elliott extended the lead to 77-73 with two foul shots but Snyder scored, Arizona missed from the line and Laettner went to the line with a one-and-one with one second left and overtime looming.
Krzyzewski met him on the court, gave him a hug and told him he would have other opportunities.
Despite Elliott’s late-game heroics, Ferry clearly got the better of the two stars. Ferry led everyone with 29 points and 12 rebounds, while adding five assists.
Elliott scored 24 points but shot only 6-for-21 from the field. Ferry was 9-for-21.
Again, Arizona won from the line. Led by Elliott’s 11-for-12 they knocked down 22-of-30 from the line, while Duke went only 8-for-11. Ferry was 8-for-10, with Laettner the only other Blue Devil to go to the line.
Arizona was whistled for 12 fouls, Duke 25. Duke also had 25 turnovers.
The loss ended a seven-game Duke winning streak in the Meadowlands.