One interim coach completed a magic ride and a newcomer to the scene made his first big statement. The Big Ten filled the field and a developing dynasty continued to stride forward. Those were the stories of the 1989 Final Four, as Michigan, Seton Hall, Illinois and Duke played for the national title. Let’s look back on the road all four teams took to Seattle…
The Wolverines were in chaos when the 1989 NCAA Tournament began, at least looking at it from the outside. Head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the Arizona State coaching job and proud Michigan AD Bo Schembecler told Frieder his services were not required in March, saying “I want a Michigan man to coach Michigan.” Steve Fisher, the top assistant, was handed the reins.
They were the reins of an extremely talented group. Glen Rice was the best of the lot, a first-team All-American who averaged 25ppg and hit over half his three-point shots. Rumeal Robinson at the point was a double-digit scorer. So were Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins and Terry Mills across the frontline. Michigan was simply bigger and more athletic than most—if not all—teams in college basketball.
They hadn’t played to that level during the regular season, though it was still good enough to go 24-7, finish third in a good Big Ten and earn the 3-seed in the Southeast Regional. Still, between the underachievement and the coaching tumult, the Wolverines were certainly not seen as likely to reach the program’s first Final Four since 1976.
Michigan had their shaky moments on opening weekend, falling behind both Xavier and South Alabama at the half. But the Wolverines had too much firepower. Rice and Robinson each scored 23 in the opener, a 92-87 win over the Musketeers. And Rice poured in 36 to key the win over the Jaguars in the second round. It was on to Lexington for the regionals.
North Carolina was the 2-seed and the team who had ousted Michigan each of the previous two years .With Rice again erupting, this time for 34 and Robinson dishing thirteen assists, the Wolverines got their revenge. The won their second 92-87 game of the tournament.
They also got a break—1-seed Oklahoma, with All-American and future Chicago Bulls center Stacey King in the middle—fell to Virginia. Michigan was able to play the 5-seed in the regional final and it was a cakewalk. Rice sealed his Most Outstanding Player of the regionals with 32 points and Higgins went off for 31 more. The game ended 102-65 and Fisher was making an unlikely visit to Seattle.
The Pirates had never even made the NCAA Tournament until 1988, when up-and-coming coach P.J. Carleisimo got them there. Seton Hall was even better in 1989. They had a physical frontline, with Ramon Ramos and Daryll Walker combining for 24 points/15 rebounds per game. Andrew Gaze, an Australian import, was a good shooter who averaged 14/5. And point guard John Morton, was both physical and quick, averaging 17ppg. The Hall won 25 games and got the 3-seed in the West.
Seton Hall followed a similar path to Michigan. The first weekend wasn’t particularly impressive. Morton scored 26 in a ho-hum 60-51 win over Southwest Missouri. The Pirates, normally a good defensive team, needed their offense to survive a challenge from Evansville. They shot 54 percent with a balanced attack leading the ultimate 87-73 win.
At the regionals in Denver, Seton Hall found the next level. They took on the 2-seed, Big Ten champion Indiana and won decisively, 78-65. The key was a big edge on the glass, with Walker getting ten rebounds and the defense forcing Hoosier star Jay Edwards into a miserable 4-for-11 night.
Like Michigan, Seton Hall watched their bracket’s 1-seed fall—Arizona and national Player of the Year Sean Elliot were stunned on a last-second three by UNLV. And like Michigan, Seton Hall took advantage of the break. They blew out the Rebels 84-61. Gaze scored 19 points and for that was named MOP.
However, that’s an honor that should have gone to Walker. With his 12 points/15 rebounds, the forward completed a weekend of controlling the boards, which was the biggest reason Seton Hall punched its ticket to Seattle.
Mike Krzyzewski was becoming one of the hottest coaches in the country. He’d made his breakthrough Final Four in 1986 and gone back in 1988. The ‘89 Dookies were led by All-American forward Danny Ferry, a superb all-around player who averaged 23 points/7 rebounds/5 assists. Ferry’s complete all-around game, his passing ability—and let’s be honest, his Caucasian skin—led to comparisons with Larry Bird.
Ferry carried most of the load, with a little help from two-guard Phil Henderson and small forward Robert Brickey. A freshman forward who came off the bench turned it out to be pretty good—Christian Laettner averaged nine points and five rebounds in his first year. Duke finished second in the ACC to North Carolina and again lost to the Tar Heels in the conference tournament. The Blue Devils still got the 2-seed in the East Regional.
Duke came out blazing with a 64 percent shooting performance as they routed South Carolina State 90-69. West Virginia provided a stiffer test in the Round of 32, but Ferry’s 20 points/8 rebounds keyed the ultimate 70-63 win. The Blue Devils were on their way to the Meadowlands for the regionals.
This was yet another case where a bracket break occurred, albeit not quite at that level as it was for Michigan and Seton Hall. The East Regional’s 11-seed, Minnesota, advanced into the Sweet 16 and they were no match for Duke. Henderson and Brickey each knocked down 21, they were up fifteen at the half and coasted to an 87-70.
There was no bracket break in the regional finals—instead, it was a titanic clash with #1-seeded Georgetown. Against an opponent renowned for its defense, Duke played perhaps its best game of the season. They shot 50 percent from the floor, with Henderson going for 23. Ferry added 21/7 and Laettner had a coming-out party of sorts with a 24/9 performance.
Ferry was named Most Outstanding Player, although Henderson was clearly the best player over the course of the two games. And the program had just made its third Final Four in four years and was in the midst of a run where they would go five straight times, through 1992.
Lou Henson took over Illinois in 1976, a program that had not reached the Final Four since 1952. Henson produced his best team in 1989. The Illini players were seemingly interchangeable parts, each able to play up and down the floor and hit the boards hard.
Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle, the two athletic forwards, combined to average 35 points/13 rebounds per game. Lowell Hamilton was a double-digit scorer. Stephen Bardo, a future analyst with the Big Ten Network, was a fine passer and averaged four assists per game. Marcus Liberty was an immensely talented, if inconsistent, freshman that came off the bench.
But one player had his value proved the most by absence and that was point guard Kendall Gill. The stat line of 15/3/4 was good enough. Most impressive was that all four of Illinois’ losses came when Gill was sidelined with a broken foot. Those losses cost them the Big Ten title, but they still got Gill back, won six in a row down the stretch—including at Indiana and at Michigan—and were rewarded with the 1-seed in the Midwest regional.
The Illini defense didn’t show up for the opener against McNeese State, allowing 50 points in the second half and having to escape 77-71. Illinois quickly refocused against Ball State, holding the Cardinals to 39 percent shooting in a 72-60 win that sent them to Minneapolis for the regional round.
There were no bracket breaks here. It was a stacked Midwest, with Louisville on deck. The 4-seed, the Cardinals had a similar profile to Illinois—loaded with athletes that could do a lot of things on the basketball court. The game was fast-paced and led by Anderson’s 24, Illinois won it 83-69.
Syracuse had survived Missouri in a game between the 2-3 seeds, one that ended 83-80. The fans at the old Metrodome were getting their money’s worth and it was only going to get better on Sunday. Illinois fell behind by seven at the half, but they shot 60 percent for the game and rallied in an electric second half. Battle scored 28 and Gill added 18. Anderson sealed his MOP honors with 24 points/16 rebounds in the 89-86 win.
THE FINAL FOUR
Seton Hall and Duke met in the early afternoon game and when the Blue Devils led by five at the half, it looked like Coach K was going to get to the brink of what would be his first national championship. Then the Pirates completely took the game over.
While Ferry was brilliant, going for 34 points, he got no help. Seton Hall used a balanced attack and tough defense, holding Duke to 36 percent shooting. And the Blue Devil defense came undone, as the Pirates racked up 62 second half points. The game ended 95-78 and it didn’t feel even that close.
The Big Ten showdown between Michigan and Illinois was one of the best Final Four games of the decade. The fast pace that defined the Illini run through the regionals was still on display, but the Wolverines could keep up and they could rebound.
The telling stat was Michigan’s 41-34 advantage in rebounds. In particular, 14-11 on the offensive glass. And if we really get specific, it was Sean Higgins rebounding a miss and getting the putback that broke an 81-81 tie with two seconds to play. Vaught hauled in 16 boards by himself and Rice poured in 28.
It was a pair of 3-seeds that played for the NCAA title on Monday night and it was fantastic basketball game. Rice and Morton put on an absolute show, with the former going for 31/11 and the latter knocking down 35 points. Michigan’s size was again decisive, with a 42-34 advantage in rebounds.
But the memorable play was always be subject to debate. Trailing 79-78, Michigan rebounded a miss and Robinson had the ball in the open floor. Around the free throw line, he kicked it to Mills on the wing with just three seconds left. There would be no shot. The whistle blew—a touch foul had been called. Robinson went to the line and completed a 21-point performance by sinking both ends of the one-and-one.
The foul should not have been called—Robinson himself said as much after the game. Not just because of the stakes, but because the contact was so mild and so inconsequential—the ball had been passed to the wing—that it shouldn’t be called at any point. Robinson was clutch on the free throws, but Seton Hall fans have a right to be aggravated that it wasn’t Mills forced to hit a winner-take-all jumper from the wing.
Steve Fisher was now a legend. He was 6-0 as a head coach with a national title under his belt. He would make it back to college basketball’s biggest stage with more heralded players—the Fab Five in 1991 and 1992—but the 1989 Final Four was his coming out party and the one time he won it all.