When Duke embraced the underdog role and ran over the Rebels
Here in 2023, it’s hard to think of Duke as the underdog. The Blue Devils bring prestige into every game they play, an aura that suggests it’s the favorite regardless of NCAA Tournament seeds or Vegas odds.
That, of course, hasn’t always been the case.
And it certainly wasn’t the case in the national semifinals of the 1991 NCAA Tournament, when Duke entered the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis for another crack at mighty UNLV.
The year prior, the Runnin’ Rebels throttled Duke in the most lopsided title game of all time. With a 56-point second half outburst, UNLV cruised to a convincing 103-73 win. The Rebels’ 30-point victory remains the largest margin of victory in an NCAA Final and also the only time a team reached the century mark in a championship game.
UNLV’s victory was so dominant, so forceful and emphatic, that one journalist summarized it this way: “The only thing that could stop the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the NCAA Finals were the CBS TV timeouts.”
A similar result was expected when UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian and his squad marched into the 1991 Final Four undefeated and the heavy, heavy favorite.
Behind Wooden Award winner Larry Johnson, All-American Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, and Anderson Hunt, UNLV began the season ranked #1 in the country and they never relinquished their seat upon the college hoops throne. In fact, they only solidified their rule.
UNLV averaged 97 points per game and a 28-point victory margin. Through 27 regular season games and three Big West Tournament games, only one team – #2 Arkansas – kept the final score within 10 points. They entered March Madness on a 41-game winning streak.
In the NCAA Tournament, UNLV continued stomping opponents. They thrashed Montana by 34. They endured Georgetown’s slower tempo and still recorded a comfortable eight-point victory. In the second weekend, UNLV smashed Utah and Seton Hall to earn a second consecutive spot in the Final Four.
Among three of college basketball’s bluebloods in Indianapolis – Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas – a fearless, confident UNLV team stood tallest. They were the show.
“UNLV was favored, and they were right to be favored,” Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff noted of the 1991 Final Four.
And it was Duke who drew the Rebels, a squad seemingly destined to win back-to-back crowns for the first time since UCLA in 1973 and the first to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
Though coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were making a remarkable fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, the underdog moniker fit the Blue Devils. UNLV was bigger, badder, and better in 1991 – one year after trouncing Duke by 30 in the national title game.
“Hopefully, we’ll come closer than 30 points,” Krzyzewski told reporters before the game. “We hope we will be able to give them some kind of game.”
Few, however, thought Duke’s 30-7 squad, one that entered the NCAA Tournament after a 22- point loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, had a prayer. Duke was fodder to a UNLV squad chasing history and looking to cement its status as the greatest college basketball team of its generation.
“Duke had already been flattened by UNLV the year before, so what was going to be different this time around?” longtime college basketball observer Pat Forde noted.
But the games are played on the court, not in our minds.
After Duke’s Grant Hill scored off the opening tip, Duke hit its next four shots. The Blue Devils surged to an early 15-8 lead. On the CBS telecast, Jim Nantz said: “If anyone wondered if Duke could play with UNLV early, the answer is ‘Yes.’”
When UNLV took a two-point lead into the break, Nantz and Billy Packer debated Duke’s ability to stick with UNLV for another 20 minutes. “How will Duke face that second-half blitz?” Nantz questioned.
Quite well, it turned out, as Duke kept the game close. With 3:51 left, Duke’s Brian Davis drew a charging call on Anthony. UNLV’s floor general had fouled out and the tone of the game immediately shifted.
“The only way we were going to lose was if Greg Anthony fouled out,” UNLV walk-on Bryan Emerzian recalls. “He got two tough calls and we just couldn’t replace that leadership.”
Though UNLV led by five with 2:31 to play, Duke closed the gap. With 12.7 seconds remaining, Duke star Christian Laettner settled on the free throw line with the scored knotted at 77.
“When Laettner went to the line, there was not any freaking question,” former Duke assistant – and recently retired Notre Dame coach – Mike Brey recalled.
Laettner drained both shots to break the game’s 17th tie. Seconds later, Hunt’s desperation three clanked off the rim. Duke had pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in Final Four history with its 79-77 victory.
That day, David shot down Goliath and Duke became Duke.