Jerry Tarkanian, head basketball coach at UNLV, was a character seemingly straight out of Damon Runyon, right down to his “Tark The Shark” nickname. Tark had been chasing college basketball nirvana for a long time. He’d brought favored teams to the Final Four in 1977 and 1987, but come up short. The 1990 UNLV basketball team was one that had the horses to go the distance and Tark proved to be an able jockey.
UNLV was led by future #1 overall NBA draft pick Larry Johnson at power forward and guard Greg Anthony, soon to be in the NBA himself and later an analyst for CBS. The Rebels filled in the lineup with small forward Stacey Augmon and two-guard Anderson Hunt. They could press, hit the three, score in transition, and above all they could play some defense.
The Rebels were the preseason #1 team in the country and they finished the regular season 29-5, earning the top seed in the West Regional. The bracket was soon gutted by upsets, and UNLV was the only one of the top four seeds to make it to Oakland for the regionals. They got a big scare from 12th-seeded Ball State and had to make a final defensive stop in the closing seconds to secure a 62-60 win.
UNLV then had to beat Loyola Marymount, who had become the 1990 NCAA Tournament’s sentimental favorite, after star player Hank Gathers had collapsed and died on the floor during the conference tournament. Marymount’s run to the regional final in Gathers’ honor was inspiring, and the other thing they were known for didn’t hurt their popularity either—Marymount ran the ball up and down the floor at an extraordinary pace.
The Rebels put an end to the Marymount run. The pace was rapid, but UNLV had the athletes who were comfortable playing that style. UNLV led 67-47…at halftime. Augmon poured in 33 points, while Johnson collected 18 rebounds. With a 131-101 win, Tark was going to Denver for the Final Four and his third try at the brass ring.
Georgia Tech was the opponent in Saturday’s national semifinal. The Yellow Jackets had a good three-guard attack. Kenny Anderson was an exquisite playmaker and long-range gunner Dennis Scott was a threat to score anywhere in the gym. Brian Oliver was a solid contributor and Tech had the backcourt to handle UNLV’s aggressive defense. Georgia Tech led by seven at the half, but after UNLV turned up the defensive screws in the second half, they won 90-81. Augmon again led the way in scoring, with 22 points.
Monday night would see one coach finally achieve his dream of winning it all. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski hadn’t been chasing nearly as long as Tark, but the Dookie were in their fourth Final Four in five years under Coach K and had yet to win a national championship. They would have to wait their turn.
The Dookies were no match for UNLV on this night. The Rebs’ attacking defense made life miserable for Duke point guard Bobby Hurley and Johnson was dominant on the inside. Anderson Hunt went off for 29 points and was named Most Outstanding Player. A 103-73 smackdown, the most decisive NCAA championship game rout of the modern era, was the culmination of the 1990 UNLV basketball season. Tark had finally reached the top.