Indelible images, that’s what people will remember about Duke’s 79-77 victory over previously unbeaten UNLV in Saturday night’s NCAA tournament semifinal.
Images of the Duke play-by-play man screaming into his microphone at game’s end: “The Blue Devils have pulled off the biggest upset in the history of Duke basketball!”
Images of Duke point guard Bobby Hurley getting carried off the court by a joyous Blue Devil third-teamer. Redemption from last year’s 30-point championship loss to UNLV was finally his.
Images of UNLV guard Anderson Hunt, head down in disbelief, hands on knees, teammates consoling him. A year ago, he was the tournament MVP.
Images of an energized Hoosier Dome audience of 47,100, all of whom can claim they were there the night UNLV’s dream of a perfect season and second consecutive national championship ended with Hunt’s missed last-second shot.
Cheerleaders wept. Players hugged. Kansas Jayhawks, who must now face Duke in Monday night’s final, wondered what in the world they had gotten themselves into.
In a game where Duke (31-7) could afford nary a single mistake, the Blue Devils made none, or so it seemed. They followed Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s formula for success as if it were gospel and for their efforts, defeated the mighty Rebels, winners of 45 consecutive games and considered all but unbeatable.
“Hey, they’re just human beings, just like we are,” Duke forward Thomas Hill said. “It’s not shocking at all to me. Maybe the media, the fans, the public think this is the ultimate upset, but not to me.”
In a reversal of roles from the 1990 title game, it was UNLV that made the errors, wavered under pressure and faltered when it mattered most. A roll call of the Las Vegas lineup:
All-American forward Larry Johnson scored only 13 points on 10 shots . . . forward Stacey Augmon was three-for-10 from the field or, in essence, a non-factor . . . center George Ackles was hampered by early foul trouble, scored only seven points and played 25 minutes . . . Greg Anthony fouled out with 3:51 to play and the Rebels leading, 74-71. Las Vegas would score only three more points . . . Hunt scored a game-high 29 points, the exact number he scored in last year’s victory over Duke. This time, he missed the shot that would have kept UNLV’s appointment with basketball history intact.
And those were just the starters. Elmore Spencer, called in when Ackles was forced to the bench with four fouls, contributed a whopping one point and three rebounds in nine minutes. Evric Gray, inserted into the lineup at various times, added only two points and one rebound in 14 minutes. UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian didn’t dare venture into his bench any further.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils could do no wrong.
“To be honest, we knew we could beat them when we first came to the Final Four,” Hill said.
And so they did, partly because they limited Johnson; partly because Hurley was healthy (he had flu in last year’s game); partly because center Christian Laettner was virtually unstoppable in the first half, scoring 20 of his 28 points, and partly because Duke shot 51.8%. No team had shot better than 47% against UNLV all season.
And still, it came down to the final 3:51, when Anthony picked up his fifth foul while charging into forward Brian Davis, who made one of the biggest plays of the game by simply standing still.
“He’s their only point guard, really,” Hill said. “When he went out, it was the turning point of the game. They’ve never really been in that position. They weren’t prepared. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know what plays to run. They thought, ‘What is Duke doing? They’re not supposed to here this close.’ ”
True enough. UNLV won 34 games this season by an average margin of 27.6 points. The Rebels only trailed in the second half twice this season and never were behind once the clock struck the 13-minute mark.
That is until Saturday night, when the Blue Devils refused to go quietly. Against Duke, there were 21 lead changes, including eight in the final nine minutes. As for those patented Las Vegas scoring runs, they were very few and very far between. After all, this wasn’t McNichols Arena, site of last season’s championship debacle. This was something altogether different.
“People try to compare us to last year’s team,” Blue Devil Grant Hill said. “There’s no comparison.”
When Anthony departed, Hunt moved to point guard and Gray entered the game as the other UNLV guard. And for a moment, it appeared Anthony’s absence wouldn’t matter. Las Vegas extended its lead to 76-71 when Ackles tipped in a missed shot with 2:31 remaining.
The new and improved Duke team--quicker, more athletic, less capable of folding--responded quickly. Hurley, held to two points and three assists against UNLV in 1990, made a three-point basket with 2:16 left. He would finish with 12 points, seven assists and play all 40 minutes, closing the book on the memories of Denver.
“I’ll be happy not to have any more questions on last year’s game,” he said.
After a flurry of missed shots, the Rebels had a chance to distance themselves once more from pesky Duke. But with the score 76-74 and only 1:31 remaining, Augmon failed to notice the shot clock running down. He held the ball as the 45-second buzzer sounded.
Sure enough, Duke took advantage of the error when Davis drove to basket, sank the shot and was fouled by Johnson with 1:02 to play. Davis made the free throw, giving the Blue Devils a one-point lead.
A Johnson foul shot tied the score, 77-77, but Laettner untied it with two free throws. Only 12.7 seconds remained.
After Johnson brought the ball up, hesitated, and then passed up a three-point attempt, Hunt got the ball with time only for a desperation 23-footer. With Hurley rushing toward him, Hunt attempted a shot that never had much of a chance.
“He took a really bad shot,” Thomas Hill said.
Hunt didn’t dispute the assessment.
So history is safe. The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the last team to win a national championship without a loss, and the 1972 and 1973 editions of UCLA, the last teams to win consecutive national titles, can rest easy. Still, Anthony wished to include a footnote on the Rebel run.
“I think we’re the greatest team not to win a national championship,” he said.
Krzyzewski might have his own ideas about such things. This is his fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four and his fifth in six years. He has yet to slip a national championship ring onto his finger and still might not if Kansas continues its postseason magic.
But Krzyzewski knows one thing: UNLV won’t have any ring ceremonies any time soon.
THE NEAR UNBEATENS Division I basketball teams that went undefeated in the regular season and lost in NCAA tournament:
YEAR TEAM LOSS OPP. 1951 Columbia First Round Illinois 1961 Ohio St. Championship Cincinnati 1968 Houston Semifinals UCLA 1968 St. Bonaventure Second Round N. Carolina 1971 Penn Regional Final Villanova 1971 Marquette Second Round Ohio St. 1975 Indiana Regional Final Kentucky 1976 Rutgers Semifinals Michigan 1979 Indiana St. Championship Michigan St. 1991 Nev. Las Vegas Semifinals Duke
NOTE: Unbeaten teams that won national championships were San Francisco (1956, 29-0 record); North Carolina (1957, 32-0); UCLA (1964, 30-0); UCLA (1967, 30-0); UCLA (1972, 30-0); UCLA (1973, 30-0); Indiana (1976, 32-0).
LONGEST WIN STREAKS The longest winning streaks in NCAA Division I basketball, with team that ended the streak and score of the game.
NO TEAM (YEARS) STREAK ENDED BY 88 UCLA (1971-74) Notre Dame, 71-70 60 San Francisco (1955-57) Illinois, 62-33 47 UCLA (1966-68) Houston, 71-69 45 Nev. Las Vegas (1990-91) Duke, 79-77 44 Texas (1913-17) Rice, 24-18 43 Seton Hall (1939-41) Long Island, 49-26 43 Long Island (1935-37) Stanford, 45-31 41 UCLA (1968-69) USC, 46-44 39 Marquette (1970-71) Ohio St., 60-59 37 Cincinnati (1962-63) Wichita St., 65-64 37 N. Carolina (1957-58) West Virginia, 75-64 36 N. Carolina St. (1974-75) Wake Forest, 83-78 35 Arkansas (1927-29) Texas, 26-25