The Night The Rebels Stopped Runnin’
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It was an utter dismantling.
The 1990 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (or the much-preferred title ‘March Madness’) was notable for a variety of moments. It featured some of the highest-scoring contests in the competition’s history. Loyola Marymount, grieving the death of star forward Hank Gathers, put up 149 points (and surrendered 115) over Michigan in the second round, setting a record for the most points by a team in a single game, and the most combined points in a single game with 264. Keep in mind, college basketball games are only 40 minutes.
The champions that year were the number 1 seed University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels (UNLV), coached by Hannibal Lecter’s twin, Jerry Tarkanian. It was clear that UNLV’s blistering pace of frenetic basketball would be the toast of the country, and they proved it by defeating Loyola in the Elite 8 by a score of 131-101. UNLV would then go on to defeat Georgia Tech in the semi-finals and were pitted against the Duke Blue Devils for the national championship.
Duke and UNLV weren’t stylistically comparable in the least. UNLV was anti-establishment and had the attention of pop-culture sensations like Tupac Shakur, Mike Tyson, and various A-list actors. Duke is a team you either love or hate, whereas this ensemble of talent from UNLV propelled the city school into basketball lore, for which they haven’t been able to repeat that success beyond the early 1990s.
While the Runnin’ Rebels had explosive, improvised offensive play from future NBA draft picks Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augmon, Duke played the fundamental game to a tee, with eventual Dream Team member Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill, and Alaa Abdelnaby.
Duke’s road to the 1990 final (aside from an opening-round walloping of 14th seed Richmond) was much closer than the path taken by the Runnin’ Rebels. The Blue Devils’ 97-83 semi-final victory over Arkansas appeared to set the stage for what was deemed to be a ‘relatively close final’, but right from when the ball was tipped, UNLV bullied Duke senseless.
It is quite sad to watch. Mike Krzyzewski dons the same haircut and hair colour at age 43 that he does at age 74, but it bodes well to question why his hair didn’t turn grey that evening in Denver. UNLV smashed Duke 103-73, becoming the first (and only) team to put up more than 100 points in a title game. Hell, UNLV’s combined 571 points over the six-game tournament set a record that has never been broken, as Kentucky’s 535 in 1996 remains the closest to this unreachable milestone.
Laettner, Hurley, and Krzyzewski hung their heads as Johnson, Anthony, Anderson Hunt (who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 29 points in the final), and ‘Tark the Shark’ cut the nets down to the wonderful tune of “One Shining Moment” by David Barrett.
Source: Eric Risberg/AP Photos
ONE YEAR LATER
Lo and behold, the 1991 NCAA tournament gave Duke the coveted rematch they were so hungry to avenge. The problem was that UNLV barely lost any of their star players. Johnson, Anthony, Augmon, and George Ackles were now seniors, with Hunt only a junior along with 7’ foot centre Elmore Spencer. Duke was the much younger squad, as Abdelnaby and Phil Henderson’s graduations left the only notable holes to fill.
Laettner was now a junior, 6th-man Brian Davis was a junior, Hurley and Thomas Hill were only sophomores, and senior Greg Koubek was slotted into a stretch 4 depending on whether Laettner chose to stay in the low-post or pop up to the elbow. Perhaps the biggest name on the team in terms of future accolades was freshman phenom Grant Hill, who is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. This rematch would be a doozy.
UNLV steamrolled through their entire opposition in the Big West Conference that season. None of their regular-season games were even close in the slightest. Ranked 1st in the nation throughout the year, the Runnin’ Rebels were a perfect 18-0 in conference play, 27-0 throughout the entire regular season, and 30-0 by the time the March Madness tournament began.
Along the way, the core of Johnson, Hunt, Anthony, and Augmon slaughtered opposition with a blistering offensive tempo and stalwart ‘amoeba’ 1-1-3 zone defence implemented by Tarkanian. 14 of their 27 regular-season wins saw them eclipse 100 points, and their closest contest saw them emerge victorious by seven points while VISITING the number 2 ranked Arkansas. Otherwise, it was common to see the Rebels rout their opponents by 30, maybe 40 points. Men vs. boys out there.
Duke was formidable in their own right. They entered the season poised to improve upon their sound defeat in the 1990 title game with a mature, returning nucleus. They won the daunting ACC Conference with a record of 11-3, but they were soundly defeated in the ACC Tournament final by their hated rival, the North Carolina Tar Heels. They finished with an overall regular-season record of 25-6 and were undefeated at home.
Despite being favoured to enter the March Madness tournament as a #1 seed in their region, the bitter loss to the Tar Heels jarred them back to a #2 seed.
As both respective teams flourished on their way to the final rounds, there was a buzz in the air that a rematch between the two teams could occur in the semi-finals. Granted, this buzz generally favoured the Runnin’ Rebels, who hadn’t lost a game since February 26th the previous year. UNLV disposed of Montana, Georgetown, Utah, and Seton Hall to return to the Final Four for the third time in Tarkanian’s tenure as coach.
Duke blasted past Northeast Louisiana, Iowa, and Connecticut, and thanked St. John’s for knocking off the Midwest number 1-seeded Ohio State by promptly beating them in the Elite 8. This set the stage for the rematch between the two schools in the Final Four.
The hype was real. In the other semi-final, Kansas disposed of North Carolina, thus ensuring that should Duke win, they wouldn’t get that sacred rematch against their state-rivals. Kansas was coached by Roy Williams, who would go on to win three national championships with North Carolina. He defeated his contemporary, Dean Smith, by a score of 79-73, thus the winner of this rematch would do battle with the Jayhawks for the national title. Should Tarkanian be victorious in the semi-final, it would be his 600th win as a Division I coach.
As UNLV walked from the bus into the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis (while the other semi-final transpired), the crowd roared for the 34-0 title-holders. Their winning streak had now stretched to 45 games, and they could taste a repeat shredding of the Blue Devils, who were 8 point underdogs. Duke was poised upon arrival at the Dome, quiet confidence that they could win the basketball game if they could neutralize and limit Larry Johnson’s ability. It seemed a bit like a David vs. Goliath preface, though Duke certainly were no slouches. Game time.
Right off the tip, freshman Grant Hill took possession from Greg Anthony and needed only one small dribble before laying the ball in for the game’s first two points. Anderson Hunt immediately responded ten seconds later with a spot-up three-pointer. Duke then countered with a twenty-five-second possession that resulted in a Laettner three. It was going to be that type of game.
Laettner scored 9 points in the first three minutes of the ball game to put Duke up by a surprising 15-6 score. UNLV then went from man-to-man into their trademark ‘amoeba’ defence which hovered on all acute driving angles but also closed out tight on perimeter passes. This change in strategy resulted in the Rebels themselves going on a 12-3 run to tie the game.
UNLV was much more adept at earning second-chance points, as Augmon, Johnson and Anthony each collected multiple offensive boards. They had 11 offensive rebounds before Laettner finally pounced on a Brian Davis miss and scored to cut the score to 25-24 for UNLV.
From then on out, neither team ever went up by more than five points. The contrast in styles made for some beautiful college basketball, and the 55000 fans packed in the Hoosier Dome (the stadium of the Indianapolis Colts at the time) were treated to a spectacular back and forth game. UNLV had only been trailing at halftime just once all season (the aforementioned game vs. Arkansas in which they emerged victoriously), and Duke was a perfect 26-0 when they led at halftime. This statistic was made irrelevant when Greg Anthony banked a left-hand floater with 10 seconds to go to give UNLV a 43-41 lead at the half.
Duke had done a brilliant job neutralizing Larry Johnson, who was named the Naismith College Player of the Year, holding him to only 6 points. Anthony was the Runnin’ Rebels most valuable player in the first half, scoring 16 points while dishing out 3 assists and collecting 3 rebounds. For Duke, Laettner scored a remarkable 20 first-half points, while Hurley dished out 4 assists, one of which was a sensational behind the head, no-look dime to Grant Hill in transition.
Duke had possession to start the second half and Hurley and Laettner connected on a beautiful pick and roll that had Tarkanian chewing his towel. UNLV began the half back in man-to-man defence, though they would once again switch to the amoeba as Duke took their time and swung the ball around throughout the 45-second shot clock. The lead changed hands an absurd amount of times.
After Thomas Hill banked a shot from the block to put Duke up by 2, Hunt instantly responded with a three-pointer. Grant Hill turned the ball over on an inbound and Hunt went unmolested for the two-handed slam, only for Hill to redeem himself on the next possession with an and-1, drawing George Ackles’s fourth foul. Holy Moses, what a game.
Source: Ed Reinke/AP
Thomas Hill awkwardly twisted his back while going up for a rebound which allowed Hunt to hit another uncontested three, his fourth of the game. Hill received some treatment on the court from the trainers but would return to the contest a few minutes later. At this point, the score was deadlocked at 51 apiece, with 15 lead changes and 9 ties. This intensity wouldn’t peter out in the slightest.
Duke sophomore guard, Billy McCaffrey, checked into the game and drained a deep two-pointer, and UNLV centre Elmore Spencer air-balled a free-throw. Both UNLV guards, Anthony and Hunt, injured their hands within seconds after taking hard falls at both ends of the floor. Laettner and Greg Koubek were doing a wonderful job shutting down Larry Johnson, exhausting him to the point of asking for a quick substitution to catch his breath. Upon his return, he was given a technical foul for mouthing off to Hill after Bobby Hurley fouled the labouring Anthony hard under the basket. Scintillating stuff!
Tarkanian was up and animated throughout the tense second half, whereas Krzyzewski remained calm and poised, rooted to his seat. Duke held a 65-63 lead with just under ten minutes to go. Anthony picked up his fourth foul a minute later and was forced to sit during a crucial point of the match. Hunt felt the pressure to pick up his play without his backcourt buddy, and had a phenomenal second half, scoring 19 of his 29 points in the latter frame.
Anthony was re-inserted into the game a few possessions later, both he and Ackles one foul away from being dismissed. The two teams continued to trade baskets, keeping the contest as close as possible. UNLV managed to go up 74-71 with just under four minutes remaining, when Brian Davis drew a charge on Anthony, resulting in his fifth foul. In what could be his final college basketball game (as he was a senior), Anthony was forced to watch the final 3:51 from the sideline.
Duke seemed to go a little cold from the field, and the Rebels took a lengthy offensive possession that resulted in Ackles rising above the futile Blue Devil attempt at squeezing the rebound to extend the Rebels’ lead to five. Hurley drained his third three-pointer of the game at a critical time to narrow the UNLV lead to 76-74 and Duke called a timeout. UNLV then tried to chip as much time away as they could on their next trip down the floor, but after getting an inbound under the basket with three seconds to go on the shot clock, Stacey Augmon seemed to suffer a brain-fart and didn’t even attempt to shoot the ball before the clock expired, resulting in a vital turnover.
With 1:03 to go, Brian Davis miraculously got the hoop and the harm to take the lead back for Duke, 77-76. This was the twenty-fifth lead change of the game. Johnson was then fouled on UNLV’s next possession with a chance to take the lead back for the Rebels. However, he missed the first free-throw, and then also boinked the second, but Thomas Hill prematurely stepped in the key, allowing Johnson a chance to take another shot, which he made to tie the game at 77 apiece. 49.9 seconds left.
Duke needed to dwindle that clock down, take the most efficient shot possible, and be quick to sprint back in transition should the Rebels re-possess the ball. Thomas Hill penetrated from the left side with 15 seconds left, missed the shot, and everyone on the floor except Hurley desperately tried to come away with the ball. Laettner managed to secure it, and the Rebels’ Evric Grey inexplicably fouled him with 12.7 on the clock.
Everyone in the Hoosier Dome was on the edge of their seats. With two free-throws, Laettner was arguably the most reliable player on the Blue Devils to step to the charity stripe.
“It was a case where I had been shooting 80% all year, and especially well in the NCAA tournament,” Laettner stated on the blessed ‘One Shining Moment’ VHS tape my dad used to own. “The only thing that went through my mind the whole time was, if I make these, wow; we’re gonna beat UNLV, we’re gonna beat UNLV.”
Make no mistake about it, Laettner unequivocally drained both free-throws to put the Devils up 79-77. The Rebels called timeout. This was it.
PLUNK. The ball careened off the base of the backboard, off the spring box, was tipped by Thomas Hill, and into the arms of Hurley, the shortest player on the court as time expired. It was all over. Duke had managed to knock off the undefeated Runnin’ Rebels. The crowd was in an absolute frenzy. Nobody knew how to act.
For Duke, there was glee and genuine exuberance, but also dignity and self-assurance in that this shouldn’t have been as big a surprise as it seemingly was. Tarkanian instantly became calm and modest as he shook hands with Krzyzewski, who was still as composed as ever.
Source: Al Behrman/AP
The Blue Devils went on to win the NCAA Championship over Kansas two nights later and would repeat as champions the following year with the very same team. On the other hand, it was indeed the final college game for Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and George Ackles, who were all selected in that summer’s NBA draft (Johnson being selected with the first overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets).
Many college basketball historians place the UNLV team from 1989 to 1991 as one of the finest in the history of the sport, and just as many states that the 1991 team was arguably the greatest team to not win the championship.
Tarkanian would only coach the Runnin’ Rebels for one more year, taking his talents to the NBA for a very short stint with the San Antonio Spurs. Both he and Krzyzewski have been inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the former in 2013 and the latter in 2001. Since UNLV, only three schools have managed to go undefeated heading into the NCAA Tournament, those being Wichita State in 2014, Kentucky in 2015, and Gonzaga in 2021.
Jim McKay famously made the statement, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” in the ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1978. This statement has never been truer when describing this famous game thirty years ago. Two contrasting styles of basketball, who were involved in a lopsided affair the year before are pitted against each other once again, only to have the younger, underdog team stake their vengeance on such a massive stage to snatch a repeat title away from Goliath.
Were there any posterizing dunks? Not really. Was the final shot at the buzzer successful to alter the result? Nope. Did the ‘good guys’ win? North Carolina and numerous other neutral fans would say “hell no”. Yet, there’s still such a classic ring to it, and only watching it from start to finish will you come away breathless at how poetic and perfect a basketball game it truly was.
It’s all about what the collegiate athlete exhibits in their quest to claim glory for their school. Will they make it to that next stage of their career, or is this their last form of competitive competition before graduating? These aren’t professional athletes, they’re still just kids. To have the intestinal fortitude to play on such a big stage in such a big stadium and bare your soul for the sporting world to see…..; hey, that’s what Dick Vitale would say “Is a beautiful thing, baby!”.