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Duke-UNLV ’91: NCAA’s Greatest

Posted By Steven Keys On Feb 10 2013 @ 4:10 pm In NCAABK | No Comments

With Super Bowl and Signing Day in rear-view, we gridiron groupies can now dive into those diversions we’ve been giving the short-shrift, the neglected middle-children in our sporting family: hockey and basketball.

College hockey’s at full glide while the NHL’ers are still getting their ice-legs underneath ’em. Fans don‘t realize how hard it is to fisticuff on frozen water. It’s not just having a tireless short punch that wins the melee, the key is skate placement and that takes practice, along with the bruises & lacerations.

The League frittered away half a season dickering over money & duties but surprisingly (or not) kept PED-testing off the table. And who are they kidding? Guess I shouldn‘t be surprised. This is the ice competition that just crowned its 2nd sunny California champion (LAK) in 6 years. Gary Bettman, Ladies & Gentlemen.

On the hardwood, the pros, with their own union-forged PED state, have miles & miles to go before their grueling playoff run in May. Contenders, pretenders, wake me in spring.

College hoopsters are moving closer to their showcase events: the pink-carnation affair (NCAA) and then the consolation-prize tourney (and next season primer), the NIT.

And March Madness is crazy for upsets.

Better get out the Pepto-Bismol ‘cause it looks like that upset feeling is starting early as the top-teams are handling their #1 rankings like they were hot potatoes. Off-track: Never voted for Dan Quayle and his boss but always thought he got a raw deal from the press and that god-awful Murphy Brown character. Potato just feels half-baked without an ‘e.’

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

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..” / 3-9-11) believes “single-elimination” is what makes the tourney a winner.

My own diagnosis: it’s the tournament’s 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 BCS championship, the men’s and women’s parties are where new stars 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 than Selection Sunday. Excitement-wise, it’s up there with any of the Triple Crowns, the last five in the Super Bowl, final lap at Talladega or Indy500 and the Atlas Stones lift in World‘s Strongest Man. It’s why President Obama’s so keen to publicize his NCAA tourney picks. Savvy man.

And if you can’t find a team to root for you’re not trying.

The Selection gets our attention…the upsets keep us talking.

College roundball has its share of doozies: Texas Western (El Paso / ‘66), North Carolina State (‘83), Villanova Wildcats (‘85) and Princeton (’96) head the list.

But one upset stands out from the rest. It’s not even close.

March 30th will mark the 22nd anniversary of the Duke Blue Devils improbable 1991 NCAA 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. It is the gold standard by which all other NCAA contests must be measured.

Why such high praise for a college b-ball 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 NCAA Rules Committee and allowed into the tourney to defend their 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 the Blue Devils conveyed the student-athlete ideal. In reality & interview, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner appeared no more studious or articulate than the Vegas bunch and emanated the same boyish arrogance as the coming Fab Five.

As for the sideline strategists, when separated from the claims of NCAA Rules police, Jerry Tarkanian was as likable and skilled as his Dukian counterpart Coach K.

It was on the court 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 who was looking for their own breakthrough moment.

In the end, it was Duke’s relentlessness and 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 victory.

UNLV didn’t lose the game, Duke won it. This was no mistake-prone Colts team losing to the confident Jets in 1969 (SB3). 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 USA’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey 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 remained one of the nation’s premiere programs while UNLV has fallen 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.

Steven Keys

Macro Sport

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