There was so much information flowing through Bobby Hurley’s basketball brain, it is a wonder that it did not crash like a cheap computer. But this is what the greatest athletes do. They sort what is extraneous — the crushing defeat from a year earlier that pushed him to this point, the millions watching on television and thousands in the stands, the extraordinary consequences of success or failure — from what is essential. In this case: time and score.
There is more than basic math to this calculation, but that’s an enormous aspect of it. There were 150 seconds remaining in the game, that game, when Hurley accepted the inbounds pass with his team now trailing by five points. He was aware that some might view this as a modest disadvantage to overcome but understood that it certainly is not when there is a mountainous team defending it. He knew the available time was dwindling. With a 45-second shot clock the rule of the day, he realized that there could be as few as four possessions before the final buzzer sounded. Time and score.
Then it was the sophisticated stuff. As Hurley crossed half court, something was different. The defense had shifted and no longer was covering man-to-man. His coach, Mike Krzyzewski, moved to call for a strategic change to how his offense approached the possession. Hurley did not ignore him, but did not need him in the moment. He saw the opening before him, and he seized it like Washington attacking at Yorktown.
“I understood the magnitude of the possession,” Hurley, now head coach at Arizona State, told Sporting News. “I guess what was going through my mind was: If I get a crack or a seam, I’m shooting it. Because I trust myself and I trust the work I put in. I knew it was a critical possession. You trust your teammates, and you know they can make plays, but deep down I decided: If they give me a look, I’m letting it go.”
What do you think about, when you remember that game: Duke vs. UNLV, 1991 Final Four, semifinal Saturday? Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt on the Rebels’ side, carrying a perfect 34-0 record into the Final Four; Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Billy McCaffery and Hurley on the other.
Perhaps you recall none of it, because you were not yet born into the pleasure of college basketball fandom. Perhaps 30 years is too long to retain details beyond the winner and, more to the point, the loser. You may remember the free throws Laettner converted with 12.7 seconds remaining to give Duke the winning margin over UNLV, although if you recall that there were 12.7 seconds when he shot or the precise final score he engendered — Blue Devils 79, Runnin’ Rebels 77 — you are a savant.
To understand how that result developed, and the full extent of its impact, it is essential to recognize the weight of Hurley’s 3-point shot from just to the left of the foul circle, which did not win the game for the Devils and nonetheless served as the foundation upon which that year’s championship was built, and all four that followed.
Exactly 30 years ago this week, Duke returned to the Final Four at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis to challenge what was being discussed as possibly the greatest team in the sport’s history, 1990-91 UNLV. Twelve months earlier, those two teams had met for the championship and it had become the most lopsided title game in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels winning by 30 points.
There was so much emotional baggage ferried into the rematch, it could have jammed the Suez Canal.
This was Duke’s fifth Final Four appearance in six seasons. Krzyzewski had created a modern dynasty. Because of the expansion of March Madness in 1985, the Devils actually had won more NCAA Tournament games in that period than UCLA had in winning its first six championships. But they reigned without a crown.
“A couple of those Final Fours, we had overachieved. It’s not like we had juggernaut teams,” Krzyzewski told Sporting News. “The best team that didn’t win was ’86; that was as good a team as I’ve coached. The other teams were good, they just … weren’t great. A big thing for coaches and players is to get to the Final Four. It’s a bridge that only a few cross. And it’s to Mecca. It’s basketball heaven to get to the Final Four. In some respects, when you make the Final Four, without knowing you can let up a little bit. You can rationalize. I spent a lot of time thinking about that after we lost to Vegas in Denver. I said: If we’re able to do this again, we’ve got to at least think about, ‘Are we rationalizing? In some way, do we let up a little bit?’ Not that we’re not ready. It’s a fine line.”
A freshman in his 38th game as Duke’s starting point guard, Hurley had played miserably in that 1990 championship game. Sick all weekend, he’d run to the bathroom just about every time he was removed from the game or when the action was stopped. He scored two points — on free throws — committed five turnovers and missed every other shot he took.
What had been a pleasantly unexpected run to the title game for the Blue Devils became almost an embarrassment.
“I think it provided me with the best edge I’d ever had going into a game, a big game like that,” Hurley said. “I can even see video of us walking out for that game to warm up and seeing what my eyes looked like. I felt like a man possessed for that game. There was a bit of anger. There was a chip on my shoulder.
“As a player, I had a lot of pride. And then to be beaten that way. … Coach K left me out on the court at the end just to soak it all in, didn’t take me out and put someone else in so I continued to watch UNLV celebrate, even with their reserve players coming in and scoring more on us. I remember vividly how that felt. Certainly I had to utilize that for the next game.”
‘You can definitely beat them’
UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian was nearing the end of a three-decade feud with the NCAA on the day the bracket for the 1991 NCAA Tournament was released. In another year, he would resign his position as Runnin’ Rebels coach. A half-dozen years after that, a suit Tarkanian had filed against the NCAA for harassment would reach an out-of-court settlement that paid him $2.5 million, albeit with no admission of misbehavior on the part of the organization.
Tark, as he was known to all, affectionately or otherwise, immediately recognized in the names adjacent to UNLV all the malice he perceived from the NCAA. He bitterly complained about the expected second-round matchup against No. 8 seed Georgetown. The Hoyas were only 19-12 entering the tournament and finished sixth in the nine-team Big East. But Tark saw a roster that featured future Hall of Famers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, and he seethed.
He did not say it publicly, but when he noticed the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, whose champion would be bracketed to meet the West Region winner in the national semifinals, he wanted his players to understand what they might be facing from another iteration of Duke Blue Devils.
“He said, ‘The one I’m really concerned about is Duke’s on our side of the bracket. And if we have to play Duke, that’s going to be a really tough game because of the fact we beat them by 30 last year,’” Dave Rice, then a reserve for the Rebels and now an assistant coach at Washington, told Sporting News. “He was already talking about that. I can remember it distinctly.
“This whole notion that I’ve read, that we were overconfident — we had tremendous respect for Duke. And they’d added Grant Hill. So we knew it was going to be a tremendous challenge. It wasn’t like he was taking Montana for granted or Georgetown or the whole way, but he already had his eye on the fact if we could get by all those teams, he knew what a challenge that Duke game was going to be.”
UNLV tore through that tournament the way it had the entire season. The Georgetown game was a pain, as Tark had feared, but the Hoyas’ guards were not on the level of their formidable frontcourt. UNLV forced 15 turnovers and Georgetown shot only 1-of-12 on threes. The Rebels’ eight-point victory became only their second by less than a double-figure margin. At the old Kingdome in Seattle, the Rebels then wrecked Utah in the Sweet 16 and, in the regional final, surged clear of Seton Hall after a tight first half.
“We played really well, and then we did a terrible job closing the half,” P.J. Carlesimo, then Seton Hall head coach and now a basketball analyst, told Sporting News. “I remember being really upset going for about a 500-mile walk from the court to the locker room. I thought we were going to beat them. They were a great team, but I didn’t think they were invincible. It wasn’t like: What are we going to do? We got no shot of beating these guys. And then in the second half, we turned the ball over big time. I was pissed. I didn’t think we played as well as we could, and obviously we had to, to beat them.”
After the defeat, as Carlesimo remembers it, he went out to dinner with his parents in Seattle and then returned to the hotel to a message from one of his closest friends in coaching.
“I remember coming back to the room, back to the hotel, and the kid who was our manager, Felix Roman, he would set up my video in my room so I could watch the game when I got back,” Carlesimo said. “There was a message from Mike K on a yellow Post-It — in fact, I kept it; I don’t know if I could put my hands on it now — that said, real sarcastic: ‘Call me when you get in.’”
We deleted the sarcastic part; family publication, and all.
“It was so funny, and Felix was kind of, ‘Coach K called.’ And I said, good. And he handed me the message and said, ‘He told me to say this to you,’” Carlesimo said. “When I called back, Mike’s question was obvious: How good are they? Can you beat them? Are they beatable. I remember telling him, vividly, not blowing smoke at him or trying to make him feel good, I said, ‘Yeah, you can definitely beat them. I thought we were going to beat them, to be honest, with you.’”
‘I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m worried.’
Duke’s final memory of the 1990-91 regular season was a crushing 22-point defeat against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament final. No, wait. It depends on how one does the accounting. The final memory might have been Krzyzewski’s proclamation upon boarding the team bus outside the Charlotte Coliseum.
“Krzyzewski will tell you the story about how he got on the bus after that game and said to the team: We’re going to win the national championship,” legendary sportswriter and author John Feinstein told SN. “Where he came up with that, I don’t know. That’s why he’s won 1,160 games.”
Duke had even less difficulty than Vegas advancing toward the Final Four from its No. 2 seed in the Midwest. The Blue Devils defeated Northeastern Louisiana, Iowa and Connecticut by an average of 19.3 points, and St. John’s did the favor of taking out No. 1 seed Ohio State in the regional semis at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. SJU could not sustain that magic in the final and became another victim of a Duke blowout, losing 78-61.
The Blue Devils left Michigan believing they could play with the best team in the country and, most importantly, if they could play with the best team in the country into the final stages of their national semifinal, the experience of being in tight games with Georgetown, Oklahoma, N.C. State and Georgia Tech might give Duke an advantage.
“We talked a lot that week. I told my team: I’m going to tell everyone we’re going to lose, that they’re better than we are. But don’t believe me,” Krzyzewski told SN. “What we did, we took out the minutes of the championship game when we lost, where we were playing well. And I did individual meetings with our guys to show them. ‘Bobby, look, you’re playing well. We can do this.’ And Christian, the guys who had played in that game. I even did that in the locker room before the game individually, just to remind them.
“And we had a new player, a guy named Grant Hill. And he and Tony Lang gave us length and that lateral quickness, along with Thomas Hill and Brian Davis. All of a sudden, we had a team that more mirrored them. So we were different.
“And when you win 45 in a row as they had, psychologically we have an advantage. There’s no question about it. And if you can get them into the last couple minutes, not that they’re going to get nervous, but it’s a different free throw. It’s a different breaking of a press. They’ve not had to say: We’re all in on this one play. We had that experience from being in the ACC and the schedule we played.”
UNLV had not been involved in a truly harrowing game since the Sweet 16 — of the prior season. In the 1990 West Region semis, Ball State had the ball with a chance to tie or win in the final seconds but passed up an open shot and threw an errant pass that was stolen by Rebels center David Butler. In the national semis, Georgia Tech stayed in the game until the final minutes, but the Rebels always were in control.
“They weren’t really challenged a whole lot going into the tournament,” said Steve Carp, a United States Basketball Writers Hall of Famer who covered the Rebels for the Las Vegas Sun. “I know one thing: When they practiced at Washington High School after they did the faux practice at the RCA Dome, Tark was worried. He came over, and he said, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like this. I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m worried.’ I said, ‘What are you worried about?’ He didn’t think his team was as focused as it needed to be.”
‘It is not OK for us to lose’
The two teams playing in the first semifinal, who somehow became the undercard for the Vegas-Duke rematch, were North Carolina and Kansas. They are now two of the three winningest programs in Division I basketball, and it was not any different then.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about their game. It was a good game, with Kansas eventually winning by a six-point margin. In the Duke locker room, Krzyzewski became aware of the result.
“There’s a part of every Duke fan and every Carolina fan that when the other guy loses, you feel good. OK, we at least did as well or better than them. That’s not what I’m thinking all the time, but it’s rationalization. I said to myself, ‘Damn. Right as we’re getting ready to leave, I’ve got to hit this.’ I told the players, ‘Everyone sit down. Look, Carolina just lost. It is not OK for us to lose.’ I said, ‘Look, our goal is not to be ahead of Carolina. Our goal is to win the national championship.’ That came from a lot of study of rationalization.”
For sportswriters assigned to cover this Final Four, an uneventful first semifinal was almost a universal wish. Typically, there is less than a half-hour between the two semifinal games, which provides only a modicum of time to hit the coaches’ press conference or do locker-room interviews if the goal is to be back on press row before the second game commences. And, with Duke vs. UNLV as a headliner, that was the goal.
With 35 seconds left in the game, however, Hall of Fame Tar Heels coach Dean Smith got himself ejected. He’d already received a technical foul in the first half, and toward the end he clearly left the coaches box after one of his players was disqualified for a fifth personal foul.
Smith had made himself into a news story. It was, by Smith’s count, only the third ejection of a career that was nearly three decades old. Reporters were compelled to seek out Smith’s explanation, and the reaction of KU coach Roy Williams. The NCAA even made coordinator of officials Hank Nichols available in a press conference.
“I wasn’t even in my seat for the start of the game. I remembered getting in my seat, and it was a TV timeout, and I think Duke was up 15-6,” Feinstein said. “And then as you expected, Vegas came back and was up two at half. And the other thing I remember, early in the second half, Greg Anthony made a steal, went in for a layup, put them up by a few points. And he started waving his arms at the Vegas fans, because they were all sitting on their hands. ‘Of course we’re going to win.’ We hadn’t seen that from Vegas all year. I was sitting with Ron Green Jr., and I turned to him and said, ‘These guys are uptight.’”
‘The biggest shot I ever saw’
What we remember best about the great sporting events invariably are the great plays, the extraordinary moments. For the losing side, though, it often is an injury that removes or limits an essential player, or an official’s call, whether justified or not.
The masterful work Duke did controlling All-American Larry Johnson, rotating a series of defenders against him, probably was the biggest factor in the game remaining close. He got only 10 shots and scored 13 points, nearly 10 below his average. From the Vegas perspective, though, the biggest factor in the outcome likely was Anthony’s disqualification after his fifth personal foul, on a charge drawn by Brian Davis, with 3:51 left. Anthony had scored 19 points and passed for six assists, and his departure left a significant hole in the UNLV perimeter defense.
“It changed the complexion of the game,” Carp said. “The charge was a tough call, but he probably put himself in a bad position by even driving when all he had to do was run the offense and kind of distribute the ball.”
The Rebels were ahead by three at that juncture, and 80 seconds later they gained their largest lead of the game — just five points — when center George Ackles attempted a layup off a feed from Johnson, missed, then reached up with his left hand and tipped the ball in the goal. The score was 76-71 with about 2:30 on the clock as Hurley accepted the inbound pass from teammate Greg Koubek and trotted to the midcourt line.
As UNLV aligned in its “Amoeba” zone, Hurley made a quick, horizontal pass to backcourt partner McCaffery on the right; he paused as Augmon approached him and then returned the basketball to Hurley. As the ball traveled back, Hurley saw it: Hunt, in an unfamiliar role in the zone because of Anthony’s absence, had dropped below the foul line even though the ball was still out front. Hunt was covering nothing and no one, least of all Hurley, who stood 23 feet from the bucket — and 10 feet clear of Hunt. Just like that, it was 76-74.
“Against that Amoeba defense — they were great at it. You don’t get too many clean looks,” Hurley said. “It was the purest shot that I’ve taken. When it left my hands, instantly I knew it was in. It didn’t hit any part of the rim.
“I was saying to myself: If they’re in the zone and they’re giving me the look, I want the shot. If you have that confidence, and I know game situations, and I know just where we were at in that game and how the momentum had changed. I knew we needed something to make an instant response to what they did. I know that I can make the shot. I’m not sure how my teammates are feeling at the moment; things are unraveling a bit.
“I knew that it was necessary. There still was a lot more time to play, over two minutes, but you wonder if a shot like that adds a little bit of doubt to your opponent. Like, ‘Hey, these guys won’t go away.’”
It was obvious, inside the RCA Dome, that the shot’s audacity was almost as big as the three points it added to Duke’s total.
“It froze Anderson Hunt. It froze Johnson. It froze Tim Grgurich. It froze the Strip,” said Frank Dascenzo, then sports columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun. “Mike immediately called timeout, and you could see the eyes of the Runnin’ Rebels: They’re not backing down.”
UNLV scored only one more point in the time that remained. The score was tied in the final half-minute, when Duke worked the ball inside and Laettner was fouled going for a rebound. He made both free throws comfortably. Lacking Anthony’s direction, the final Rebels possession was a hash, Johnson passing up a potential game-winner and passing it backward to Hunt, who was double covered and hadn’t the time or room to launch an accurate shot.
“A lot of people have asked me what is the biggest, most impressive play you’ve seen in 39 years of covering Duke, and they want me to say Christian Laettner’s shot to beat Kentucky at the Spectrum in ’92,” Dascenzo said. “The biggest shot that I ever saw, the most incredible play, was Bobby Hurley’s shot.”
‘The most important shot in the history of Duke basketball’
As the buzzer sounded on Duke’s victory, the Blue Devils began to celebrate on the floor, and Krzyzewski could be seen gesturing to his players to calm down. He did not want them to believe they had won anything more than the right to advance. There still were 40 difficult minutes to play against Kansas.
The Devils didn’t listen all that well. Hurley left the floor on teammate Clay Buckley’s shoulders, piggy-back style, then slapped hands with members of the Duke band as he trotted toward the tunnel. Grant Hill put an arm around Thomas Hill’s shoulders, then flashed the “We’re No. 1” gesture to the band.
“We were going crazy. We knew what a monumental win it was, what we had just accomplished, so you have to take a moment to enjoy that,” Hurley said. “When you win a game like that and you have to play at that level to beat a team like UNLV, your confidence gets taken to a different place. So we were laser-focused. We knew what we did, but we also knew what we needed to do on Monday night.”
Months after the championship had been won with a victory two days later over Kansas, assistant coaches Mike Brey and Tom Amaker were with Krzyzewski on a recruiting trip and having dinner after scouting some prospects.
“And Mike said to us: Bobby’s shot was the most important shot in the history of Duke basketball,” Brey, now coach at Notre Dame, told Sporting News. “Amaker and I looked around and said: That’s a hell of a statement. And he explained why. Mike knew the history of Duke basketball. And Tommy and I were like: Yeah, good point, we agree.”
A year before, Laettner had connected on a buzzer-beating jumpshot to defeat No. 1 seed UConn and send the Devils to the Final Four. A year later, he would sink the turnaround jumpshot to beat Kentucky in the NCAA East Region final, in what is widely acclaimed as the greatest game in college basketball history.
And still, when Hurley was inducted into the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame a decade ago, Krzyzewski reiterated the point about the consequence of that 3-pointer against UNLV. And he did it again in our conversation this month.
“That was the reason we won that game, and really that game, in the history of college basketball, it’s one of those benchmarks,” Krzyzewski said. “In those three years — ’90, ’91 and ’92 — the two teams that were playing in that game won all three national championships. It could have been a run for Jerry — two in a row — and instead it became a run for us to get two in a row.
“It’s nothing against Christian’s shot. It’s one of the storied shots in the history of college basketball and our program. But because this didn’t so-called win a game, wasn’t a buzzer-beater, a lot of people don’t know it. It was a two-possession shot. And it really put game pressure on them. When they got it to five, they were always confident and really good, and they had control. And then all of a sudden …
“That shot just did a whole bunch of things, you know? That’s why I said it was the biggest one we had in the history of our program.”