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20 Yrs Later, Duke-UNLV Still Tops

Posted By Steven Keys On Mar 23 2011 @ 4:47 pm In Duke | 2 Comments

March Madness is crazy for upsets.

More than any other sport, the NCAA Basketball Championships seem predicated on the probability that powerhouse schools will get unplugged by some small-college upstart on their way to being fitted for Cinderella’s glass slipper.

Bookies and business-types lose sleep just thinking about it, but fans can’t get enough.

Shockers aren’t the only defining trait of Madness. Writer Frank Deford (SI.com / “What Makes March..” / 3-9) believes “single-elimination” is what makes the tourney a winner.

My own diagnosis: it’s the tournaments inclusiveness which gives it a lovable lunacy.

The NCAA holds a big dance and (nearly) everyone’s invited.

Unlike the hoity-toity cotillion which is college football’s championship, the men’s and women’s parties are where new faces are found and dreams can become reality.  It’s not exactly a Delta Tau Chi bash (Animal House) but more like that dorm party the first week of classes: come one, come all.

Apart from a national crisis, no event in America does more to unify all 50 States than Selection Sunday.  If you can’t find a team to root for you’re not trying.  It’s why President Obama’s so keen to publicize his picks come March.  It’s gonna’ be his legacy when his eight-year tenure is complete as it won’t be jobs or healthcare reform, sad to say.

The Selection gets our attention…the upsets keep us tuned-in and talking.

College roundball has its share of doozies: Texas Western (El Paso) over Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky (‘66); North Carolina State (‘83) and the Villanova Wildcats (‘85) head the list.

But one upset stands out from the rest.

March 30th will mark the twentieth anniversary of Duke’s improbable 1991 Final Four Semifinal victory over the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.  It remains in this writer‘s memory the most exciting, sublime game in college basketball history, maybe all of sport.

Why such high praise for a college semifinal game?  Simply put, this David and Goliath match-up had everything.

For starters, it was an upset of the first order.  UNLV was undefeated, showcased Player of the Year Larry Johnson, were riding a 45-game win streak and faced the same school they’d easily brushed aside in the 1990 Final to win their first basketball title.

While Duke was no stranger to the Final Four (their fifth under Mike Krzyzewski, ninth overall), each appearance had ended with a loss.  In losing to UNLV in the 1990 Final by a lopsided 103-73 margin, the Blue Devils’ game appeared out of step with the times.

Before tip-off it had all the signs of another massacre.

While the contrasting racial make-ups of the Texas Western / Kentucky squads gave that game serious social overtone, Duke / UNLV was not without its own psycho-drama.

It was ivy-covered halls vs. desert developers; old money vs. Sin City.  More weighty was the appearance of favoritism when UNLV was given a pass by the Rules Committee and allowed into the tourney to defend their 1990 title.

Two years earlier Kansas had been denied defense of its own title by rule infractions.  The normally no-nonsense NCAA and their new open-door policy for a similarly-situated UNLV smacked of some serious hypocrisy.  But then, new money’s as green as the old.

On the surface Duke conveyed the student-athlete ideal.  In reality and interview, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner appeared no more studious nor articulate than the Vegas bunch and as full of themselves as the soon-to-be Michigan Fab Five.

As for the head coaches, when separated from the claims of NCAA Rules police, Jerry Tarkanian was as likeable and skilled as his Dukian counterpart.

It was on the hardwood where the real difference existed.  Duke was ball-control and fundamentals. UNLV was run & gun and dominated inside with strength.

Though a fan of neither team, I wasn’t exactly neutral either.  Like many, I pulled for the underdog Duke.   Besides that, the Rebels were a regional rival to my own school, the University of Arizona.

In the end, it was Duke’s ability to impose its style on much of the game-tempo, while managing to compete with the Rebels inside that gave the Blue Devils the narrow 79-77 win.

UNLV didn’t lose the game, Duke won it.  This was no mistake-prone Colts team losing to the savvy Jets in ‘69.  The Rebels played with skill and with heart.  A more hard fought, back & forth battle I never witnessed.  Maybe Duke just wanted it…needed it more.

Like the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team (USSR / Finland), Duke’s ability to summon the strength and close the deal against Final opponent Kansas (72-65) gave their Semifinal triumph a special place in history.

The Blue Devils have since become the nation’s premiere program while UNLV has fallen back into mediocrity.  But both schools can look back with pride on that glorious night in Indianapolis when an epic battle raged and grit, not a miracle, made a champion.

Keys to Sport

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