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20 Years Ago: Duke Shocks the Runnin’ Rebels

Posted on March 30, 2011 by A.J. Foss

Duke turned the basketball world upside down by shocking the Runnin' Rebels.

Today, it is hard to believe any victory by the Duke basketball team as a monster upset, but 20 years ago, the Blue Devils pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history when they knocked the unbeaten and defending national champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the Final Four.

The Blue Devils entered that Final Four not as the team everybody loved to hate, but rather as a program that could not seal the deal when it came to winning the NCAA tournament.

Under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke had made four trips to the Final Four in the previous five years, but came away with no national championships, as they lost their trips to the title game in 1986 to Louisville and in 1990 by 30 points to UNLV.

The 103-73 victory in the 1990 championship game was the first national championship for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and first for head coach Jerry Tarkanian, famous for his towel-chewing in the middle of games

Tarkanian had built UNLV into a national power with his up-tempo offensive style that had led the Rebels to two other Final Four appearances prior to their national title in 1990.

But under Tarkanian’s leadership, the program had built the reputation as one that did not play by the rules as “Tark the Shark” was often at odds with the NCAA.

Three months after they won the national title, UNLV was put on prohibition and banned from postseason play for the 1991 season, meaning they could not defend their championship.

But after discussions with the NCAA, the ban was lifted and UNLV would be allowed to play in the 1991 NCAA tournament.

With that featured national player of the year Larry Johnson and first-round NBA picks Stacy Augmon and Greg Anthony, the Rebels breezed through the 1991 season as they entered the Final Four with 34-0 record and a #1 ranking the team had held all year.

Not only was UNLV perfect, but they were dominant as well as only two of their victories were  by single digits, with their average margin of victory being a staggering 29 points per game and eight wins of over 40 points.

The Rebels were also the highest scoring team in the country as they averaged 101 points per game and went over the century mark 17 times.

While the Blue Devils did not have as an easy time as the Rebels, they did have another nice season in 1991.

Duke finished the season with a 25-6 record and won the ACC regular season title behind center Christian Laettner, point guard Bobby Hurley, and freshman sensation Grant Hill.

However, the Blue Devils stumbled in the ACC title game as they lost to North Carolina by 22 points, costing them a #1 seed.

Duke entered the tournament as the #2 seed in the Midwest region and easily made it to their fourth consecutive Final Four, after easily dispatching of Northeastern Louisiana, Iowa, Connecticut, and St. John’s.

Christian Laettner and the Blue Devils reached the Final Four for the fourth straight year.

But it seemed certain that once again the Blue Devils would fall short of the national championship as they prepared to face UNLV in their national semifinal in Indianapolis, one year after their debacle at the hands of the Rebels in the title game.

But from the start, it was apparent that this game would not be like the one from the previous year.

Duke jumped out to a 15-6 lead before UNLV came back to tie the game at 18 with 11:28 left in the first half.

The two teams went back-and-forth for the rest of the first half as Laettner scored 20 points for the Blue Devils while Anthony poured in 16 to give the Rebels a halftime lead, but only by the score of 43-41.

The game remained close throughout the second half as the largest lead by either team was only five points, a 64-59 lead for Duke with less than 12 minutes remaining.

That is when UNLV seized control of the game and went on a 15-7 run to take a 74-71 lead with 4:25 to play in regulation, thanks to 18 second half points by Hunt.

However, the Rebels were dealt with a huge blow thirty-four seconds later when Anthony committed a charge for his fifth foul of the game, sending him to the bench for the rest of the game.

Still, UNLV was able to increase its lead when George Ackles tipped in his own missed basket to give the Rebels their largest lead of the game, 76-71 with 2:32 to go.

The 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels entered the Final Four with a perfect record.

But Duke had an answer as Hurley drilled a three-pointer on the Blue Devils’ next possession and after forcing a shot clock violation, they tied the game when Brian Davis made a driving lay-up and was fouled by Johnson, giving him a chance for a three-point play and for Duke to retake the lead with 1:02 remaining.

Davis made the free throw to give Duke a 77-76 lead and appeared to dodge a bullet when Johnson missed two free throws with 49.9 seconds left.

But a lane violation on the Blue Devils gave Johnson another free throw, which he made, tying the game at 77.

Duke held the ball for as long as possible for a shot and with 15 seconds left, Thomas Hill drove down the lane for a shot that was missed but rebounded Laettner who was fouled on the rebound and would go the foul line to shoot two free throws with 12.7 seconds left.

Laettner calmly sank both free throws to give the Blue Devils a 79-77 lead where Tarkanian called timeout, setting up UNLV’s last chance to pull out a victory or least send the game into overtime.

The ball was inbounded to Johnson, who dribbled the ball all to the three-point line, before passing it to Anderson Hunt, who had scored 18 points in the second half.

After a few more dribbles, Hunt launched a three-pointer that bounced off the rim and back into the hands of Hurley as time expired, and ending the hopes for a historic championship for UNLV.

Instead, it was a historic upset as Duke knocked off 79-77, setting off a wild celebration as the Duke players embraced each other in the center of the court and Hurley riding to the locker room on the back of one of his teammates.

The UNLV players were shocked after their upset loss.

While the Blue Devils had gotten payback against UNLV for their colossal defeat in the 1990 title game, they would not fully redeem themselves until they won the title game.

Two nights later after their shocker over the Rebels, Duke captured its first national championship with a 72-65 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks.

After their meeting in the Final Four, the fortunes for the Duke and UNLV basketball programs chance dramatically.

Two months after the loss to Duke, a picture of Hunt and two other players in a hot tub with a known sports fixer was published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

This lead to another NCAA investigation that eventually lead to the resignation of Tarkanian after the 1992 season and a three-year prohibition period for the program which no national TV appearances and all non-conference games to be played on the road for 1994 and 1995 seasons.

The program has never been able to reach the elite status it had at the time of their shocking loss to Duke, as the Rebels have made six appearances in the NCAA tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen only once, back in 2007.

On the other hand, the Blue Devils continued their championship reign and became the gold standard for college basketball.

Laettner, Hurley, and the Hills came back to lead Duke to a second straight national championship in 1992, which included Laettner’s famous buzzer-beater against Kentucky in the East Regional Final.

And since winning back-to-back NCAA championships, Krzyzewski has led to Duke five Final Four appearances and two more national championships to earn recognition by many college basketball observers as the greatest coach since John Wooden.


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