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In 1991, Duke’s Win Over Oklahoma Was A Major Turning Point

When winning in Norman wasn’t normal

Brian Davis - Duke
In 1991, Brian Davis would emerge as a major factor for Duke

It’s hard to know what to make of Duke’s 1990 men’s basketball season. They made the national title game but lost nine times. They were ranked anywhere between third and fifteenth in the AP poll. Duke was poised to win the ACC regular-season title until losses to NC State, Clemson and North Carolina in their last three conference games dropped them to second. Duke’s 83-72 loss to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament was so dispiriting that media members could hear Phil Henderson excoriating his teammates as “crybabies” through the Charlotte Coliseum walls.

So, Duke turns around and wins five straight games in the NCAA Tournament. They weren’t all easy. Duke came from behind late to beat St. John’s in the second round and got past Connecticut in overtime in the Elite Eight on Christian Laettner’s first great buzzer beater.

Duke then defeated seventh-ranked Arkansas 97-83 in the Final Four to make the title game.

We all know what happened next. But many people thought Duke had a realistic shot at the Running Rebels. UNLV came into the game 29-5, with losses to New Mexico State and UC Santa Barbara in conference play and they barely beat Kent State and Georgia Tech in the tournament and Duke owned two regular-season wins over the Yellow Jackets.

UNLV didn’t go into that 1990 title game with a reputation as an unstoppable behemoth, they made that reputation in that game.

Back to Duke. Mike Krzyzewski lost three senior starters from 1990. Guard Phil Henderson led Duke in scoring (18.1 ppg), was second-team All-ACC and a second-round draft pick. Center Alaa Abdelnaby was third-team All-ACC and leveraged his first-round draft status into a five-year NBA career.

Then there was Robert Brickey, one of the most underrated players in Duke history. The athletic 6-5 wing is one of only three Duke players to start for at least three consecutive Final Four teams; Laettner and Bobby Hurley are the other two.

It wasn’t exactly a complete rebuild for 1991. Laettner emerged in 1990, averaging 16.1 points and a career-best 9.6 rebounds per game. Still, he was second-team All-ACC. Good for a sophomore in those days. But not yet a legend.

And Hurley was feast-or-famine-point guard as a freshman. Yes, he averaged 7.6 assists per game, a school record at the time. But he also shot 35 percent from the field and committed 166 turnovers. That’s still a Duke record and I think it’s an ACC record; the league doesn’t keep that stat.

Duke returned six reserves from that 1990 team. Crawford Palmer and Clay Buckley were post players. Greg Koubek and Brian Davis were forwards. Billy McCaffrey and Thomas Hill were guards. Only McCaffrey (6.6) averaged more than five points per game. Grant Hill and Tony Lang, a pair of 6-8 forwards led the freshman class.

The ingredients were there but the recipe was not clear. Nine different Duke players would start at least eight games that season.

There’s a belief that Duke’s title season came out of nowhere. Not really.

Duke was ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll.

In the preseason AP poll.

Close losses to Arkansas and Georgetown had them 7-2 and ranked ninth they visited Norman, Oklahoma on December 22, 1990.

Mention Oklahoma sports and football is the first image to pop up. But under Billy Tubbs, the Sooners were one of the nation’s top basketball programs. They had lost to Kansas in the 1988 title game and were ranked number one in the Final 1990 AP poll. Players like Waymon Tisdale, Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King won All-America recognition.

The Sooners were especially hard to beat at home. They went into the Duke game on a 51-game home winning streak, dating back to the last regular-season game of the 1987 season. They hadn’t lost a non-conference game at home since 1982. They were 7-1 and had already posted a 162-99 win over Angelo State, a 141-105 win over Virginia Commonwealth and a 172-112 win over Loyola Marymount. Their leading scorers were 6-8 forward Jeff Webster and sharp-shooting guard Brent Price. You may remember his older brother Mark, who starred at Georgia Tech.

But it was another guard, Terry Evans, who staked the home team to an early lead. Evans hit five 3-pointers in the opening half.

Oklahoma led 50-44 at intermission.

“I told our team at the half I thought we were playing excellent basketball and that Oklahoma was playing a little better, and to just keep their heads up,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Sometimes when you’re playing real well and losing, you can get down on yourself.”

Duke opened the second half with a 10-4 run, as Hurley scored twice inside.

That gave Duke a 55-54 lead.

The teams traded baskets until a Hurley three spurred an 11-2 run that put Duke up 78-70, with 7:44 left. Led by Webster, the Sooners closed to 83-79, with just under three minutes left.

But Duke scored the next six points and put it away.

The final was 90-85.

Tubbs blamed his defense for the loss.

I thought we left a lot to be desired defensively,” he said. “A lot of things broke down, but I think our defense broke down the most.”

Krzyzewski, conversely, credited his defense for spurring the comeback.

“What we were just trying to do was keep them a little bit farther out or make them have to work just a little bit more to get their shots. Our perimeter defense did a much better job in the second half.”

OU didn’t hit a single 3-pointer in the second half.

Webster led everyone with 32 points but Duke held Price to 11 and Evans ended with 17 points and 11 turnovers.

Duke’s balanced attack was led by Laettner and Grant Hill with 19 points apiece, Thomas Hill with 16 and Bobby Hurley with 13, 12 of those in the second half.

Duke outrebounded Oklahoma 39-29.

“We had a chance to beat Arkansas,” Krzyzewski said. “We had a chance to beat Georgetown. But you can’t just have chances. You’ve got to do it. I think they didn’t want to just be satisfied getting close.”

Progress isn’t always linear and Duke still had some stinkers on the way to that 1991 title. But there’s little question that this big road win was a big signpost along that journey.