Greatest Games: Duke-UNLV 1991

As you may have heard, for the first time ever the Final 4 will feature four #1 seeds. Although some people have been complaining about the lack of surprises, I was quite content watching Davidson make it to the Elite 8. As for the top 4 teams in the country making it to the Final 4 being the latest sign of the college basketball apocalypse, I really don’t see it as being much different than several other years where only #1 and #2 seeds made the Final 4. Would you really feel any different about this Final 4 if Texas had beaten Memphis? I doubt it unless you are a Longhorn or Tiger fan. Anyways, with a little more than 36 hours until the tip of the first semifinal I thought I would whet your appetite for the potentially great games we may see on Saturday and Monday night. On to the game. . .

With the exception of the 1992 Duke-Kentucky East Regional Final, a case can be made that Duke’s upset of UNLV in the 1991 National Semifinals was the most significant game of the past 20 years. This was the game that put Duke and Mike Krzyzewski over the top going from lovable losers to the team to beat most years. While the Blue Devils still needed to beat Kansas in the championship game (featuring Grant Hill’s alley-oop dunk from Bobby Hurley), most college fans will remember this as the de facto championship game much like the Miracle on Ice (the US had to beat Finland to win the gold). To put this game in context, you have to remember that UNLV had crushed Duke the year before in the championship game 103-73 (a record 30-pt margin).

Here is the box score from the championship game (not a pretty picture unless you were a Duke hater at the time).

UNLV came into this game undefeated and was widely expected to become the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers (featuring Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson, and Scott May) to go undefeated. Many experts were already speculating about where this UNLV team ranked all-time not unlike what happened with a certain football team from Massachusetts this year (minus the videotaping, but probably with more hookers). Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels came into the game 34-0 beating their opponents by an average of more than 27.5 points while averaging a ridiculous 98.3 PPG. They were led by Larry Johnson (National POY), Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, and Stacy Augmon). Some of our younger readers may not realize how great these guys were in college so we’ll just say you should think about what Memphis did to Michigan State in the 1st half of their Sweet 16 game this year. Now imagine a team doing that every game. That’s what this UNLV team was like for the entire season. UNLV ran through the tournament with the exception of an 8-point victory against a Georgetown team that featured Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

On the other side of the ball, Duke came in with a respectable 30-5 record, but was only the #2 seed in its own region. After the championship game the year before nobody expected this game to be close. Duke had added Grant Hill to their roster, but he was only a freshman and nowhere near the player he was by the time he was a senior that carried a YMCA team to the 1994 championship game. In addition, the Blue Devils had lost 2 of their top players (Phil Henderson and Alaa Abdelnaby) from the year before to graduation. This was Duke’s 4th consecutive Final 4 appearance and 5th in 6 years, but they had failed to seal the deal and were becoming the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills before there were the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills. In the NCAA tournament, Duke advanced to the Final 4 through a relatively easy bracket thanks to some early-round upsets (beat a 15, 7, 11, and 4 seed to win the Midwest Region).

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube we can bring you footage from that game including a pregame and postgame clip.

[Editor’s Note: For some reason the embedding isn’t working properly except for the last video. All the videos are still up on YouTube. If you click anywhere in the box except on the “Play” button, it will load in an outside window. Sorry for the inconvenience, we’re trying to figure out how to fix this.]

-Pre-game buildup and interviews with Tarkanian and Duke assistant coach (and current Harvard coach) Tommy Amaker

-Player introductions and opening minutes

-From 2:30 left in 2nd half until Laettner goes to the line.

-Laettner at the line with scored tied at 77 to post-game celebration.

-Newscast and reaction.

By the next day, the media knew they had witnessed one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. As the years passed and we only saw a few teams of the caliber of that UNLV team (’92 Duke and ’96 Kentucky), the upset grew in legend to the point where in 2000 The Sporting News ranked it as the 4th best biggest NCAA tournament upset ever and the ESPN Page 2 readers ranked it as the 4th greatest sports upset ever. I think the Page 2 poll is way off as I consider it a huge upset, but probably not in the same class as the others mentioned in that list. However, I think TSN probably comes pretty close as ridiculous as it sounds for a #2 seed beating a #1 seed to be such a big upset.

We all know what happened afterwards. Duke went on to win the first of their back-to-back titles and grew into one of the most powerful sports programs of the past 20 years while Jerry Tarkanian was fired by UNLV in 1992 and floated around the basketball universe including stops at the San Antonio Spurs and Fresno State. UNLV never reached the same heights again and only has had a measure of success with Lon Kruger getting them to the 2007 Sweet 16.

rtmsf addendum:  This is a great recap of the climate surrounding this game.  The 91 UNLV team was considered an absolute juggernaut.  We for one will never forget the highly anticipated 1-2 regular season matchup between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville (a place where the Hawgs were nearly unbeatable at the time).  UNLV absolutely blitzed the Hawgs to open the second half, never looking back in a display of athleticism and prowess virtually unmatched in all of our years watching college basketball.

One other point on this 91 Duke-UNLV game.  Two months after the game, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of UNLV players Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and David Butler sitting in a hot tub drinking beer with convicted felon and noted “sports fixer” Richard Perry (see below).

UNLV Hot Tub

Perry had been involved in a point shaving scandal at Boston College in the 70s, and there was no shortage of similar conspiracy theories being thrown around at the time based on UNLV’s confounding loss to Duke in the national semifinals.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire goes the saying, and the DOJ even felt there was sufficient cause to open an investigation into the possibility that some UNLV players may have fixed the game.  To date, we’ve never heard anything come out of these allegations, but there are some who remain convinced something fishy went on during that game.

A final point that nvr1983 touched on but sounds completely absurd today is that, at the time of that 91 game, Duke was “America’s Team.”  The hatred and vitriol enabled by the last 15 years of Dookie V. and ESPN had not yet taken hold, and most of the basketball public was happy to see the plucky guys from Durham (who were indeed becoming the Bills of college basketball) finally break through and win a title against the bullies from UNLV.  My, how things have changed.

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11 Responses to Greatest Games: Duke-UNLV 1991

  1. jeff says:

    i still haven’t quite recovered from that UNLV ‘loss.’ even though i was at florida i have fond memories of that 90-91 UNLV team, watching their late-night games on ESPN, rolling through with a perfect record. what a great team to watch. and then the duke loss. i never cared for duke one way or the other, but after that game i quickly found myself on the ‘hate’ side of the love-hate duke question. honestly, i was crushed. i wanted that vegas team to win it all and do it undefeated. part of me still thinks the fix was in, but i know it’s not the case – it’s just a way to find meaning in what happened.

    great clips. great memories. i hate duke.

  2. lostthefight says:

    Duke might have won if they’d played on the level. However, until there is information to explain the relationship with Rick Perry I think we have to assume the worst. That picture is black and white.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a Kansas fan, at first blush, I feel that Memphis vs. KU could be that same kind of upset, although given that North Carolina was supposed to crush Kansas, KU may get all the hype this week rendering the comparison useless.

  4. Rob says:

    I saw the 1991 UNLV-Duke game on ESPN classic and i noticed that even during the player introductions something was bothering the UNLV players. When the starting 5 were introduced for both teams, i saw enthusiasm on the Duke side whereas the UNLV players seemed pre-occupied with straight faces. Who knows maybe the UNLV players knew something or were paid off to throw the game to make Duke look as if they were the better team that day, just my opinion.

  5. David Rives says:

    All you have to do, to know the fix was in, is go thru the entire tape of the game and count the number of times the ball just “magically” slips thru Stacy Augmon’s hands, at ABSOLUTELY THE MOST CRITICAL POINTS IN THE GAME (and keep in mind, those of you who were not old enough to see UNLV play that year: what you’re talking about, with Augmon, is someone with possibly the “SUREST” hands in the game at that time [think Chris Webber taking down a rebound when he was with Michigan]. So, we’re not talking about some “spaz” here, who you’d EXPECT to let the ball slip thru his fingers every now and then. Uh-uh: this was “vise-grip” Augmon doing that!)
    At first, I just thought it was because he was stoned on cocaine, like so many players of that era. But now that I know about the Rick Perry thing………
    Anyway, watch the tape and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  6. Maze says:

    Greatest game college basketball, well…………….1983 semifinal Houston vs Louisville. Great energy in on every play, lot of great physical rebounding. In your face dunks all night, from bothsides. Well to me, anyway the greatest game.

  7. […] Runnin’ Rebs, who may have been one of the best college teams ever even if they lost/threw the 1991 national semifinal against Duke, but there is no way this has been the 8th most prestigious program in the country over the past […]

  8. joe says:

    One thing wrong about the ‘game fixing’ conspiracy theories. Both Augmon and Johnson could’ve left UNLV early as NBA Lottery pick locks. Both were virtually guaranteed millions. If either Augmon or Johnson were stupid enough to fix the game they would not only have risked their NBA careers but their personal freedom as well. I don’t ever recall hearing anyone in any sport being paid $10 million to throw a game because that’s about what NBA lottery picks were pulling in at that time. The ‘fix’ theory only works for people who don’t think much of Las Vegas or Tarkanian and don’t have the capacity to look at the situation from an objective point of view.

  9. rtmsf says:

    Joe – I appreciate your point about the amt of money that players could have made by going pro, but I think you miss one key element of the theory of the ‘fix.’

    That being that it happens when a player/official/whomever gets in too deep with gambling debts, and then the bookies/unsavories have a great amt of leverage over that person to the extent of threatening not only their safety but their livelihood.

    Just like the Tim Donaghy situation, where he got himself in trouble by becoming too indebted on other forms of gambling, the situation here could have been that those players were put in a position of having to do what they’re told (point-shave) or face certain exposure (which would have effectively ended their careers – ie. none of those millions of dollars).

  10. JayUNLV says:

    Just nit-picking… the final score of the 1990 Nat’l Championship game was 103-73.

  11. nvr1983 says:

    Jay–
    Thanks. I’m not sure how I made that typo. I knew the score and the link right below has the score, but somehow I messed that up.

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