Mike Krzyzewski and John Thompson only squared off twice, one win for both, Krzyzewski getting the more consequential win.
That Duke win came at the end of a decade that in many ways was Thompson’s decade.
Eight different programs won NCAA titles from 1980 through 1989. Louisville (1980, 1986) and Indiana (1981, 1987) won twice, with North Carolina, North Carolina State, Georgetown, Villanova, Kansas and Michigan capturing the other six.
But seven of those programs went into the 1980s as traditional national powers. Georgetown did not. Georgetown did play for the 1943 NCAA title. They lost to Wyoming. But after that season they suspended their program for the duration of the war and drifted into irrelevancy.
Thompson took over in 1972 and got Georgetown into the 1975 NCAA Tournament, its first NCAA invite since 1943.
Georgetown was a charter member of the Big East, which was founded in 1979. Located in the geographic foothold of ESPN, CBS, NBC, ABC and many of the nation’s most influential newspapers, the Big East was a media giant. Louisville may have had its Doctors of Dunk, Houston its Phi Slama Jama, the ACC its finesse athletes, Indiana its five-players-on-a-chessboard-ruled-by-a-chess-master vibe.
But the Big East had its own niche. It was bully basketball. No broken bones, no foul. And it worked. The Big East sent three schools to the 1985 Final Four, after all, all three beating ACC teams in the Elite Eight.
And Thompson’s Hoyas, with their 300-pound head coach strolling the sidelines, were the biggest bullies on the block. It was easy to stereotype Georgetown. But anyone who watched Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Reggie Williams or David Wingate and didn’t see an outstanding basketball player wasn’t looking hard enough.
Somehow Duke and Georgetown stayed out of each others way. Krzyzewski’s 1984 team was his first to go to the Big Dance. They were seeded third in the West. Georgetown was seeded at the top. But Duke lost to Washington, while Georgetown went on to win Thompson’s only title.
The following season Duke started 12-0. Late in one of those victories the Crazies started chanting “we want Georgetown.” In his post-game presser Krzyzewski responded “no we don’t.”
Thompson’s peak corresponded with Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown career. The Hoyas famously lost to North Carolina in the final seconds of the 1982 title game. The Hoyas lost to Memphis in the second round in 1983 but made it back to the Final Four in 1984. Georgetown beat Houston 84-75 in the title game. Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon outscored Ewing 15-10 but four other Hoyas joined Ewing in double figures.
Yes, folks, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon once squared off in an NCAA title game.
Thompson became the first African American head coach to win an NCAA championship.
Georgetown again made it back to the title game the following season as the top-ranked team in the AP poll but fell victim to Villanova’s historic 79 percent shooting.
No one could possibly have imagined it at the time but John Thompson would never again get back to the Final Four.
They made it back to the 1987 Elite Eight where they were stunned by a Cinderella Providence team 88-73. Future Florida coach Billy Donovan scored 20 for the Friars.
That brings us to 1989 and the same Duke team that lost to Arizona in the Meadowlands. Georgetown won the Big East regular season and tournament titles and entered the NCAA Tournament at 26-4, the top seed in the East and the second-ranked team in the AP poll, behind—you guessed it-Arizona.
Duke was seeded second.
If you look at that 1989 Georgetown roster today Alonzo Mourning is the name that would stick out. He was a freshman then, the nation’s top-ranked recruit on the way to a stellar 16-year NBA career. And he did lead the nation in blocked shots and make third-team AP All-American.
But the team’s best player was senior guard Charles Smith, a second-team AP All-American.
Duke advanced to the regional finals with wins over South Carolina State, West Virginia and Minnesota.
Georgetown staggered into the Elite Eight. You probably recall their 50-49 escape over Princeton in the opening round, a game that almost became the tournament’s first 1 v.16 upset. After beating Notre Dame in the second round Georgetown got by NC State after a controversial travel call on State’s Chris Corchiani nullified Mourning’s apparent fifth foul.
You may recall Laettner missing that foul shot against Arizona exactly one month earlier and Krzyzewski’s very public consolation.
Laettner listened and learned. Laettner did not have a great freshman season. He barely averaged nine points per game and less than five rebounds per game.
But this was the day when Christian Laettner became, well, Christian Laettner. He went right after Mourning, little nuance, little subtlety. Just attack mode.
Ninety seconds into the game Mourning blocked Laettner’s first shot. Laettner got it back and muscled it in, giving Duke a 6-2 lead.
Laettner didn’t miss again. He attempted 10 field goals and converted nine of them, that early block his only miss. He also hit six-of-seven from the line for a game-high 24 points. That’s right, the freshman averaging nine points per game outscored three All-Americans.
Laettner added nine rebounds—also a game high—and four assists.
Mourning had 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Dikembe Mutombo also was on that Georgetown team but he was still pretty raw and played only five minutes.
It wasn’t just Laettner of course. Danny Ferry won some national player of the year awards and he played like it. Ferry had 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
In fact Ferry was so effective against Mourning that Thompson pulled him late for reserve Sam Jefferson.
“It was basically because of Ferry,” Thompson conceded. “Because we got behind we had to get a more mobile big person in the game. We had to get someone who can defend laterally on the outside.”
But Phil Henderson provided the game’s signature moment.
Smith (21 points) and reserve Mark Tillmon (16 points) were more than keeping Georgetown in the game. The Hoyas led 40-38 at the half.
Duke put together an 8-0 run early in the second half and led 60-56 with just under 10 minutes left when Henderson got the ball outside, just to the right of the basket, with open space ahead of him. Henderson went off like a heat-seeking missile. Mourning gathered himself but Henderson had a full head of steam and beat him to the punch. The monster dunk spurred a 15-5 Duke run that extended the lead to 75-61 after a three-point Laettner basket off a no-look Ferry pass.
Georgetown demonstrated its championship credentials and clawed back with Smith and Tillman doing most of the offensive damage, while a fierce Georgetown press forced live-ball turnovers. One of those led to a Dwayne Bryant three-point play, the foul Quinn Snyder’s fifth.
Suddenly it was 75-73 with four minutes left and Duke’s senior point guard out of the game.
Duke stabilized from the foul line. Ferry, John Smith and Robert Brickey all converted both ends of one-and-ones and it was 81-77 with 2:10 left. The Hoyas missed some 3-pointers, Duke added a couple of foul shots and it ended 83-77.
Duke famously declined to cut down the nets following the win, hoping to save the ceremony for the following week in Seattle.
It didn’t happen. Duke jumped to a big early lead against Seton Hall, another Big East team, but lost Brickey to a knee injury and fell apart in the second half, losing 95-78.
The ACC and Big East had a short-lived (three years) challenge in those days and they matched Duke and Georgetown in Landover on December 5, 1990. Duke was ranked fifth, Georgetown sixth.
Laettner and Mourning were juniors by this time and Mourning had the better of it this time. Mourning had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, Laettner had 14 points, 12 rebounds.
Mutombo had matured into a starter and he and Mourning combined for perhaps the most intimidating interior defensive presence in college hoops history. Duke certainly felt their presence, shooting only 32.5 percent from the field.
Duke trailed 68-54 with six minutes left when Mutombo (13 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks) went out with leg cramps. Given some room to operate Duke closed to 75-72 on a Hurley 3-pointer with 49 seconds left and then 75-74 on two Brian Davis foul shots with 29 seconds left.
But Duke couldn’t finish. Laettner fouled out, Mourning stuffed Davis and Georgetown hit four foul shots to finish the 79-74 win.
Billy McCaffrey led Duke with 20 points, two more than Davis.
As with the loss to Arizona later in that season this setback became a footnote after Duke won the national title. Georgetown couldn’t build on their early success and ended their season in the second round of the NCAA at 19-13.
Thompson got one more chance at glory. Led by Allen Iverson the Hoyas reached the Elite Eight in 1996. But they lost to top-ranked Massachusetts (John Calipari, Marcus Camby) in the East Region title game 86-62.
Thompson retired in the middle of the 1998-’99 season, citing marital problems.
He and Krzyzewski only matched up those two times.
But that doesn’t mean they only crossed paths those two times. Both were active in USA Basketball, both coached the United States in the Olympics.
Krzyzewski released a statement on Thompson’s passing, saying in part “John was a one-of-a-kind leader and an absolute treasure. He was a Hall of Fame coach, an outstanding mentor to so many, and on a more personal level, a great friend. I loved him, admired him, and will miss him dearly.”
Eight games between ranked teams, eight highly-competitive games, four Duke wins, four Duke losses, three coaching giants.