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COLLEGE BASKETBALL : THE FINAL FOUR : Defeated, Dethroned, Bedeviled

They tried to hide the hurt.

Tried to pretend that Nevada Las Vegas losing a game of basketball to Duke, 79-77, was not the end of the world.

Tried to make believe they hadn’t just gone from unbeaten and unbeatable to unbelievably beaten.

Greg Anthony tried.

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“I’m hurting,” Anthony said. “But what can I do? I can’t stop living.”

And tried.

“I’d rather lose with this team than play with any other team and win,” he said.

And tried.

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“That’s the way the cookie crumbles, basically,” he said.

Anderson Hunt tried, too.

“I looked up, I saw four seconds left, I rushed it,” he said, wearing a cap that read 3 PT. MAN. “And the rest is college basketball.”

Stacey Augmon said little.

Walter Payton, the former Chicago Bear, ran interference for Augmon down a Hoosier Dome hallway, saying: “Come on. Give him a break.”

Said Augmon: “I have only one thing to say. Duke played a great game, and we didn’t play up to our potential.”

Larry Johnson said less.

“Duke just played good defense,” he said. “And that’s about it.”

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And Jerry Tarkanian said it for everybody, said it for the players who made up this good-but-not-perfect 1990-91 UNLV team, on his way out the door of the NCAA basketball tournament, when somebody wondered how good the coach’s 1991-92 UNLV team might be.

“We’ll be a lot better than some people think . . . but we won’t be like this,” Tarkanian said. “We’ll probably never be anything like this again.”

They beat Alabama Birmingham by 41 points. Nevada by 50. Princeton by 34. Florida State by 32. Fullerton by 31 and 21. San Jose State by 32 and 22. Utah State by 31 and 43. Irvine by 41 and 28. Long Beach by 51 and 47. Rutgers by 42. Fresno State by 49. Santa Barbara by 27 and 28. Montana by 34.

They beat Michigan State, Arkansas, Georgetown, Utah, Seton Hall--NCAA tournament teams all. They won 45 games in a row over two seasons.

They were granted a chance to defend their national championship--the same chance denied Kansas when that university was placed on NCAA probation in 1989.

Now Kansas is in the national championship game and UNLV is not.

Funny.

Not so funny.

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“Strange how life works out, isn’t it?” Anthony asked.

Whatever could go wrong went wrong. Anthony fouled out. Augmon dribbled so much, he forgot to shoot. Johnson got a technical foul in a game decided by two points. The entire bench scored three points.

Even Hunt, the only Rebel for whom anything went right, was not spared. He took the last shot. He’s the man who missed the three-point shot that would have put UNLV in Monday’s championship game.

3 PT. MAN .

Even his own hat mocked him.

UNLV’s players knew they could lose. Knew it could happen. Just didn’t know that it would happen.

Now all they could do was keep telling themselves it had been a good season . . . a good season . . . a good season. . . .

“We went 34-1,” Hunt said. “A lot of teams wish they could go 34-1.”

Now all they could do was keep telling themselves that Hunt’s desperation shot was not such a bad shot, that Johnson didn’t necessarily do the wrong thing by passing off, that Larry might not have gotten off a good shot himself.

They can tell themselves that they were lucky to get the ball up the floor, let alone set up a play, what with big Johnson handling the basketball and little Anthony having fouled out.

“How do you get a set play when Duke is full-court pressing you and your point guard is gone?” Tarkanian asked nobody in particular.

Then he answered himself.

“I wish Larry’d shot,” Tarkanian said. “Larry can shoot that shot.”

Had Johnson made it, had Hunt made it, had anybody made it, Tarkanian would have won for the 600th time as a college coach. Instead, all he had was a haunted expression and a head full of memories.

Maybe 599 would be it. All he’d get.

“I’ll be back at UNLV next season,” Tarkanian insisted.

Stacey Augmon will not. This was the last college game for the senior from Pasadena. This was the game he dreaded.

Augmon saw Duke’s Bobby Hurley in the hallway, stopped him, shook his hand, wished him luck. “How do you like that?” Payton asked. “Still enough class to do something like that, even though this is the toughest night of his life.”

Lois Tarkanian, Jerry’s wife, caught up to Augmon in the hall. Hooked her arm through his.

“You guys were so great,” she said. “You guys were so great.”


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