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Runaway!

Posted on September 21 2016

UNLV beat Duke 103-73 in the most lopsided NCAA title game ever

By Curry Kirkpatrick
April 9, 1990

Good vs. evil? What about East vs. West? Tobacco Road vs. the Strip? Grits vs. Glitz? Bookworms vs. Croupiers? Blue vs. Red, for God sakes?

Choose any of the sociologically significant polarities enveloping the national championship that you wish, but when the Runnin' (positively Ragin') Rebels of UNLV got finished with poor Duke—Miss vs. Match: The official number was 103-73, if you are keeping track on your keno ticket—they had turned a morality play into astonishing theater of the absurd.

What's more, any minute now in Sin City they will be referring to UNLV's NCAA victory as The Title from the Two Ay, that being what the National Collegiate Athletic Association has become known as around the Rebels' basketball office. Investigators have made 11 visits to the campus in the last nine months during their current probe into charges of academic irregularities and recruiting violations, so it's no wonder the Two Ay has become such an intimate component of university life. And what about all those boos from the UNLV cheering section in Denver's McNichols Arena on Monday night when the chairman of the Two Ay basketball committee, Jim Delaney, was introduced at the awards ceremonies? That just showed that Vegas rooters have healthy eyesight. They undoubtedly saw several of the Two Ay tournament committeemen's faces turn even grimmer than usual as UNLV was scoring 18 unanswered points early in the second half to clinch the championship. "I don't look on this as sweet revenge, just sweet," said Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian, who only last week settled, at an estimated cost to him of $370,000, a lawsuit with the Two Ay that had been festering for 13 years.

"But vindication?" said Tark's wife, Lois. "[Jerry's] vindicated as a coach."

While Duke showed up on Monday night in its characteristic bridesmaid's veil—the Blue Devils now being zero for eight in Final Fours—Tarkanian's swifter, stronger and more confident legions were dressed to kill. They raised their game to a wholly different level. Men vs. Toys? Let's go to the videotape.

The key for Vegas was 6'7", 250-pound junior Larry Johnson, who in only 30 minutes on the court contributed 22 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, two three-pointers and one extraordinary flip-behind-his-back-while-lunging-to-the-floor save of a ball about to go out of bounds. "You were so physical, you fouled me out," shouted Johnson's junior teammate Stacey Augmon (12 points and seven assists in 26 minutes before getting his fifth personal), joking that Johnson's play was so rugged Augmon had, in effect, been one of its victims.

In all, it was the biggest blowout in the history of the championship game. It was not just that Vegas became the first team to score 100 or more points in the final, or that it won by the largest margin ever. That was mere offense in a game in which the Rebels' defense was the story. Duke's skinny freshman point guard,Bobby Hurley, was simply overwhelmed. Harried, surrounded, throwing the ball into the finally humbled Duke band, he behaved like the TV cartoon character Bart Simpson ("Don't have a cow, man") as his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, squirmed on the bench.

The underrated Vegas backcourt of Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony delivered the punishing perimeter defense—"We couldn't get the ball past the hash marks," saidDuke forward Christian Laettner—and, on offense, beat the Blue Devils off the dribble, on the run and every which way for open shots. "It was scary just watching them," said Duke center Alaa Abdelnaby. "They engulfed us."

The normally beleaguered Tark rarely chomped on his omnipresent towel, so easily did UNLV rush to a 21-11 lead. The defense of the Rebels—"Vegas wouldn't let us play well, wouldn't let us function," said Coach K—drove Hurley out of the game with 12:37 left in the first half, whereupon he was replaced first by senior Phil Henderson, who moved over from shooting guard, and then by fellow rookie Bill McCaffrey, who were even less effective.

Just before Vegas took a 47-35 lead at intermission, Duke sophomore Brian Davis made an attempt to slap high fives with Laettner, missed and instead smacked his teammate in the face. It was that kind of rocky night in the Rockies for the team from Durham, N.C.

Welcome fellow scholars said the sarcastic sign that was waved at the UNLV team by the Blue Devil mascot. "We try to draw off that stuff emotionally," said Anthony, the vice-chairman of Las Vegas's Young Republicans, who last summer worked for Nevada Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich in Washington, D.C.

Try? With slightly more than 16 minutes left, UNLV led 57-47. In the next 2:51, the Rebels scored those 18 straight points while Krzyzewski frantically tried to halt the deluge by calling two timeouts. During the run, Hunt, a 6'1"sophomore from Detroit, sank two treys and three other baskets. Previously best known as the rebellious Rebel who had been suspended for a game for being delinquent in making payments on his student loan, Hunt finished with 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting and was voted the MVP of the Final Four.

The surprise was that he had none of UNLV's 16 steals. He didn't need any. Duke committed seven more turnovers for a total of 23. "This wasn't a game of X's and O's,"said Krzyzewski. "It was one of complete...domination."

While the Rebels burned, Tarkanian fiddled most of the second half, undoubtedly wondering how he could get out of taping an instructional video in Tulsa the next day so that he could participate in a parade back home in Vegas. Nobody asked him if there would be a float reserved for the Two Ay.

After UNLV defeated Loyola Marymount in the West Regional final on March 25, Augmon spoke about the tournament's morality play, in which his team has had the leading role. "Good versus bad?" said Augmon. "We don't mind what anybody thinks of us. The Detroit Pistons were the Bad Boys, too, and look where they ended up."

Having ended the tear-stained run of Team Courage (Loyola Marymount), which had touched the heart of the nation while playing without its fallen leader, Hank Gathers;having worn down the tournament's most compelling player, Georgia Tech'steenage Ninja monster, Kenny Anderson, in the semis; and now facing everybody's favorite Dookies-next-door, those clean-cut guys from the postcard campus who had taken all those sentimental (that is to say, losing) journeys to the Final Four—well, you get the picture. If ever there was a perfectly cast villain, it was UNLV trying once again to win the NCAA trophy and simultaneously escape NCAA probation. "Sure, I'll be back next season," said Johnson, in answer to speculation about whether or not he would jump to the NBA. "If there are any games."

But wait. As much as this was a tournament of the buzzer-beaters—28 games won by four points or less, including five decided in overtime before Monday's blowout—it was also a season for muddying images. Both Vegas and Duke barely escaped elimination in regional competition at the hands of those legendary national powers, BallState and Connecticut, respectively. And off the court, the Blue Devils may have forever rid themselves of their boring reputation, while their unangelic fans were losing their devilish rep.

First, back in January, Krzyzewski dressed down the student sports staff from the campusChronicle in front of his team because the newspaper had dared to write objectively about the Blue Devils. Of course, the young journalists secretly taped Coach K's profane outburst. Later Henderson was reprimanded by the ACC commissioner's office for criticizing a referee, and following Duke's loss to Georgia Tech in the conference tournament, Henderson ripped into his teammates,calling them "babies" and "cop-outs." Was this actually Duke or put up your dukes? Finally, the Blue Devils' notorious student rooters toned down their harassment of visiting teams (who can forget their enchanting reference to Navy as "pond scum"?) and because of a new ACC rule had to cease throwing items onto the court lest Duke be penalized with a technical foul.

Not to worry. The Blue Devils blew away the other three teams in Denver with lightning-fastbreaks of elocution. Abdelnaby, for example, credited Duke's success to"the maturation process." A typically cynical national press corps,having endured far too many charming, sensible, polysyllabic sentences from the Blue Devil intelligentsia at this event over the years, responded in kind."This good-versus-evil story line?" said one writer. "I'm not sold on it. Duke isn't so evil. Annoying, maybe."

To anybody outside the Southeast, the chant of "ACC! ACC!" for member schools Duke and Georgia Tech must have seemed especially irritating during this Final Four.Sure enough, Arkansas heard its fill of it as the anticlimactic seconds ticked off in Duke's 97-83 semifinal victory. Razorback coach Nolan Richardson hadspoken of the "Five P's—preparation prevents piss-poor performance."But how could Arkansas's Lenzie Howell have been prepared for what he facedwhen he went to the foul line with six minutes remaining and his team behind78-77? Not only did the Duke band sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm ("And onthis farm he had some pigs"), but the Georgia Tech band chimed in with"Pig!...Pig!...Pig!"

Howell made thetwo free throws, but that would be the last time Arkansas led. Thus, the SixP's: Pity the poor Porkers punctured by a Polish prodigy. Namely, Krzyzewski.Over the next 2:21 of this exhausting, all-hands-on-deck struggle—whileRichardson surprisingly rested both Howell and Todd Day, who between them hadled Arkansas from an 11-point deficit (54-43) to a seven-point advantage(69-62) and had scored 18 and 27 points, respectively—Duke slipped away withthe game.

Transitioned itaway, is more like it. Laettner, who finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds,and forward Robert Brickey, who had 17 and 11, devastated Arkansas inside. Nowwith Duke ahead 82-81, not quite as quickly as you can say abba-dabba-doo,Abdelnaby dunked and Henderson drained anon-second-thought-maybe-I-will-go-for-this-trey-right-here bomb and completed afast-break layup to put the Blue Devils in front 89-81. Henderson would wind upwith a game-high 28 points, and of his long-pause three-pointer, Krzyzewskisaid, "I'll always remember how long it took Phil on that shot. I thoughthe was working the clock."

While all thiswas going on, Day was hardly nigh; he was at the scorer's table, desperatelywaiting for a whistle to stop play so that he could reenter the game. When heand Howell finally returned to the floor, it was for only a couple of minutes.Richardson threw in the towel by benching two of his starters with 1:38 left."I didn't think the altitude would have an effect," said Richardsonafterward, "but when our guys came out, they were huffing and puffing andblowing. As winded as we were, as solid as Duke was playing, it wastime."

From the coachwho had proclaimed a game plan of 40 minutes of hell, the end was puzzling: 98seconds of whimpering help. "In the last five minutes they were the oneswho got worn out," said Hurley. "Maybe they would have had some morebreaths if they didn't do so much talking."

Speaking ofchatter, in the first half of the second semifinal, the normally trash-talkingUNLV big-room headlines looked more like an accordion-playing lounge act. Theywere tentative. "We were like a boxer feeling our way around," saidTarkanian after the game.

Playing a zonedesigned to neutralize the freewheeling Anderson, Vegas strayed far from itsusual man-to-man defense. What's more, Anthony was also being outnastied byGeorgia Tech defensive maniac Karl Brown, who disrupted the Rebels' half-courtoffense before it could get started. The Yellow Jackets' Dennis Scott, whocould make three-pointers blindfolded—and sometimes grins admiringly at histreys, as if he just has—scored 20 points in the first half, while Brian Oliverand Anderson combined for 23 more. Georgia Tech grabbed a 53-46 lead atintermission when Anderson's double-clutching, lean-in, 12-foot jumper from theleft baseline, with a bewildered Las Vegan draped over him like a drunkendice-thrower, went in. It was a brilliant shot for an NBA All-Star, much less askinny, 166-pound college freshman.

Meanwhile, threeof the Rebels' last four shots of the half didn't scratch iron, and afrustrated Johnson missed badly from underneath on the fourth. As they warmedup for the second half, Scott and Anderson were actually laughing. But in thefirst 3:38, UNLV refocused its energies and showed why all that glitter ismostly gold. With virtually no help from Johnson, who was either fouling orraising his fist to signal Tarkanian that he needed to take his weary bones tothe bench, the Rebels outscored the Yellow Jackets 10-1 to seize control of thegame.

Augmon, who wouldswoop and sway for 22 points and nine rebounds, and Hunt, who ended up with 20points and seven assists, took over the scoring. More important, Vegasabandoned its fruitless stop-Anderson defense and went back to itsscratch-and-sniff, man-to-man pressure—"They were in our jocks," saidGeorgia Tech forward Malcolm Mackey—which meant Augmon latched onto Scott, andHunt onto Anderson.

The second-halfstats were revealing: Scott converted 3 of 9 shots for nine points, andAnderson was 1 for 5 for just three points. Still, with 5:24 to go, UNLV ledonly 76-74. But the Yellow Jackets had lost their rhythm, and their spirit wasbarely flickering. Fifty-one seconds later, Hunt had sunk two morethree-pointers to give the Rebels an 82-74 cushion and enough confidence forthem to begin their usual late-game preening and screaming. "I'm quick, I'mquick," cried out UNLV reserve forward Moses Scurry at Oliver.

The 6'7",220-pound Scurry may be remembered as the fairly mean chap who punched UtahState coach Kohn Smith on Feb. 1 and who mimed drawing and shooting guns at theentire Ball State bench. However, Georgia Tech will better recall Scurry as aclutch re-bounder—he contributed all 11 of his boards in 16 second-halfminutes—who dominated in the paint. "The altitude bothered usobviously," said Scurry, "but we did what we had to do—got together,sucked it up and played hard."

Regardless of theadversity—how many game suspensions for things like bench-clearing fights,academic probations and nonpayments of hotel-room minibar tabs plaguedUNLV?—Tark the Shark's sometimes raunchy Rebels have done just that all season.And in the tournament finale, this lovable rogue of a coach got his team sofocused and so fraught with emotion that it treated proud Duke as if it werejust another UC Irvine or Cal State-Fullerton. At the end, a heartwarmingscene: The so-called thugs of Vegas circled their bald little coach as hehugged each and every one of them—Elmer Fudd congratulating all the cwazywabbits.

"We want towin this championship bad," Johnson had said on Sunday, "so that theNCAA guys will have to stare at that trophy on Coach's desk while they ask allthose questions during the next investigation."

But that's for later. After Monday night's victory, the Runnin' Rebels quickly donned T-shirts inscribed in honor of their mentor: SHARK TAKES HIS BITE. They had already ordered others for back home that would do justice to themselves. Those shirts would read THE NICE GUYS on the front and FINISHED FIRST on the back.

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