It turns out Jerry Tarkanian was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Returning four starters from an Elite Eight squad, including future NBA vets Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, and mixing in reigning junior college Player of the Year Larry Johnson, Tark’s UNLV Rebels entered the 1989-1990 college basketball season as the nation’s #1 team. But the towel-chomping, oft-controversial Tark, the winningest active coach in Division 1 hoops at the time, downplayed the Rebels’ front-runner status.
“We’re not better than everybody,” Tarkanian said as the season’s tip-off neared. “This is not a team that’s going to go out and destroy anybody.”
Amid swirling talk of NCAA penalties, Tarkanian retirement rumors, the first-semester absence of center David Butler for academic issues, and an intentionally challenging non-conference slate, Tark’s hesitancy wasn’t merely coach speak. There was legitimate reason to think that the Rebels, despite their talent, might crumble amid the lofty expectations and external distractions.
And Tark’s words proved prophetic after the Rebels dropped early season contests to unranked Kansas and #12 Oklahoma to tumble out of the AP Top 10.
In mid-January, however, the Rebels began showing their might. They downed LSU and Shaquille O’Neal. They topped North Carolina State. A 10-game February winning streak, meanwhile, included victories over ranked foes New Mexico State, Arizona, and Louisville.
After securing the Big West’s regular season title – a worthy feat for a conference that claimed three tourney teams – the Rebels won the Big West Conference title and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Finally, Tark delivered some public acclaim for his squad, calling it the best team he had ever coached – high praise from a coach who had already brought two teams to the Final Four.
In the Big Dance, the Runnin’ Rebels steamrolled Little Rock before downing Ohio State and Jimmy Jackson by 11 to reach the Sweet 16. On the Tourney’s second weekend, Tark’s crew survived an upset-minded Ball State 69-67 before taking on an inspired Loyola Marymount squad led by Bo Kimble. UNLV ended the Lions’ magical run with a 131-101 thrashing to reach the Final Four. In the national semifinals, UNLV scorched Georgia Tech in the second half, overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit to down the Yellow Jackets 90-81. That victory set up a showdown with a Duke squad led by Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.
The smart money was on the Runnin’ Rebels.
“That’s a very nice little basketball team Mike Krzyzewski is taking to the title game. But it’s no Nevada-Las Vegas. Hell, let Magic Johnson sprain his ankle and the Lakers are no Nevada-Las Vegas,” Ron Rapoport of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote.
The Rebels jumped on the Blue Devils and carried a 47-35 lead into the half. After the break, the Rebels squashed Duke with a 56-point second-half outburst en route to a convincing 103-73 victory. The 30-point win was the largest margin of victory in a championship game and the first time a team scored 100 points to claim the national title.
One observer noted that “the only thing that could stop the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the NCAA Finals were the CBS TV timeouts.”
UNLV’s pasting of Duke was the Runnin’ Rebels first national title and gave Tark his elusive championship – not to mention an opportunity to thumb his nose at the cynics and the NCAA, with whom Tark had battled for more than a decade. (NCAA investigators reportedly visited the UNLV campus 11 times during the 1989-1990 basketball season alone.)
“To have all the pressure we had, with the championship on the line, to play like we did was incredible,” a weepy-eyed Tarkanian said following the title game. “It was like a fairy tale.”