It was the year Jerry Tarkanian finally won it all and when Duke was still a lovable underdog trying to get to the winner’s circle for the first time. It was a time that Nolan Richardson was on the rise and Georgia Tech drew its inspiration from a popular movie franchise. It was the 1990 Final Four. Here’s a look back at how UNLV, Duke, Arkansas and Georgia Tech traveled the road to Denver.
Tarkanian gave to Vegas in 1974 and turned the Runnin’ Rebels into a national power. He made two Final Fours, in 1977 and 1987 and five additional Sweet 16s. UNLV had been to a regional final as recently as 1988. This 1990 edition was his best team.
Power forward Larry Anderson averaged 21 points/11 rebounds per game and was a 1st-team All-American. David Butler at center and Stacey Augmon at small forward each scored in double figures and grabbed seven boards per game. The backcourt had a terrific playmaker in future pro and CBS analyst Greg Anthony, running alongside a good pure shooter in Anderson Hunt. UNLV went 26-5, rolled through the Big West conference tournament and got the #1 seed in the West Regional.
The road started in Salt Lake City and it was an easy one for the Rebs, as they dispatched Arkansas-Little Rock and then polished off Ohio State and their talented freshman forward Jim Jackson. Meanwhile, the rest of the region was being gutted with upsets as the 2-3-4 seeds all fell early. Already a favorite, UNLV arrived in Oakland with nothing but a coronation awaiting them.
Only no one told Ball State, a 12-seed who fought ferociously, outrebounding UNLV by a decisive 47-34. Johnson and Augmon responded with 20 points apiece and the Rebels hung on for a 62-60 win in the end.
Loyola Marymount was a national story, after the tragic death of the best player, Hank Gathers, on the floor during the conference tournament. Teammate Bo Kimble honored the left-handed Gathers by shooting his own free throws lefty. Prior to the tragedy, Marymount was a popular team for their insanely fast pace and routinely scoring triple digits. By the time they rolled through favored opponents in March playing for their fallen teammate, they were everyone’s favorite.
UNLV was more than happy to run though. Augmon went for 33/11 and sealed Most Outstanding Player honors. Johnson was a beast, with 20/18 and Anderson Hunt drilled 30 of his own. Vegas led 67-47 by halftime and won 131-101. Tarkanian was going to his third Final Four.
Mike Krzewzyski had Duke on the rise, taking the Blue Devils to Final Fours in 1986, 1988 and 1989. He was still without the brass ring. The 1990 Duke team didn’t appear to be anything special. The three key veterans were Ala Abdelnaby (15 points/7 rebounds), Robert Brickey (12/5) and sharpshooter Phil Henderson, who knocked down 19ppg.
The Blue Devils got a big lift from underclassmen the nation would soon hear much more about—point guard Bobby Hurley averaged eight assists per game and sophomore forward Christian Laettner emerged as a force, with a 17/10 per-game average. Duke finished second in the ACC, lost in the semis of the conference tournament and was the East Regional’s #3 seed as the 1990 NCAA Tournament got underway.
Duke went to Atlanta for opening weekend and blew out Richmond, a program that had pulled big upsets in 1984 and 1988 and would again in 1991. The Blue Devils followed that up by edging 6-seed St. John’s and getting the Meadowlands for the regionals.
UCLA was a 7-seed playing far from home, but the Bruins did have two prolific forwards in Don Maclean and Tracy Murray. The Blue Devils couldn’t contain them, as they went for a combined 36 points/24 rebounds. But Henderson and Laettner answered, combining for 52 points of their own and Duke won 90-81.
Top-seeded Connecticut, enjoying a breakout year, awaited for Sunday afternoon’s regional final. Duke led 37-30 at the half, but they weren’t shooting the ball well. They ended the day at 39 percent from the floor and the Huskies pulled even. The game went to overtime where Duke trailed 78-77 in the closing moments.
Laettner inbounded the ball on the Duke side of the floor and quickly got it returned to him. He double-clutched at the foul line and put the ball in as time expired. It capped a 23-point game and earned him the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Abelnaby went off for 27/14 and Henderson added 21 as the Blue Devils went to their fourth Final Four in five years.
Arkansas was in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year under Richardson. A program that had last reached the Final Four in 1978 under Eddie Sutton’s leadership, was again on an upward trajectory. The backcourt was explosive, with Todd Day a 20ppg scorer at the two-guard and Lee Mayberry averaging 15 more. Oliver Miller was a big boy who patrolled the middle, averaging an 11/6 and the Hogs got double-digits each night from Lenize Howell and Ron Huery.
The Razorbacks rolled through the old Southwest Conference, the best of three NCAA teams that came out of the SWC (Houston and Texas being the others). Arkansas went 14-2 in league play and won the tournament in Dallas. Losses in non-conference tests to Missouri and UNLV kept the Hogs as a 4-seed in the Midwest Regional.
Arkansas had to survive a tough game from Princeton, a team with a track record of making favorites sweat and a trendy upset pick. The Hogs were better than 5-seed Illinois, who was upset by Dayton. Arkansas survived another tough fight in the second round to advance.
The Hogs might not have dominated the opposition, but they were the only one of the regional’s top four seeds to make it to Dallas for the regionals. Nonetheless, Arkansas probably didn’t feel like they had gotten a break when they prepared to play 8-seed North Carolina and Rick Fox in the Sweet 16.
It was a tight game at half with the Razorbacks leading by five. Arkansas’s defense and balance eventually broke through. They had four players score between 18-25 points, while Fox was held to nine. The final was 96-73.
Conference rival Texas awaited in the regional final. Day didn’t shoot well, but Arkansas made up for it on defense, forcing the Longhorns into 42 percent shooting from the floor. Mayberry got 18 points and Lenzie Howell, who’d led all scorers against Carolina, did it again here with a 21 points/9 rebounds performance. It made him the Most Outstanding Player as Arkansas won 88-85.
Bobby Cremins had rebuilt the Georgia Tech program from the ashes since his arrival in 1982. He reached the regionals in 1985 and 1986, each time as a 2-seed with a credible chance to reach the Final Four and each time coming up short. His 1990 team had one of the great backcourts in the country.
Kenny Anderson, a dynamic point guard out of New York City was a freshman that averaged 21 points/6 rebounds/8 assists per game. Brian Oliver was a 21ppg scorer. And the best of them all was Dennis Scott, who roamed the perimeter at 6’8” and poured in 28ppg while also averaging seven rebounds a night. Scott was the ACC MVP. They were nicknamed “Lethal Weapon 3” after the movies starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. And after they went 21-6 and won the ACC Tournament, Tech was a 4-seed in the Southeast Regional.
Georgia Tech beat East Tennessee State to open the tournament and then played an epic second-round game against LSU, who had a great point guard of their own in Chris Jackson and a center that would achieve some notoriety in the NBA—Shaquille O’Neal. The Yellow Jackets won an exciting 94-91 battle.
It was on to New Orleans and a date with top-seeded Michigan State. Scott and Oliver had a rough night, combining to shoot 11-for-32. Anderson made up for it, knocking down 31 points and pulling out an 81-80 thriller in overtime.
The march through the Big Ten continued against 6-seed Minnesota, who had upset Syracuse in the Sweet 16. For the third straight game, the Yellow Jackets were in a fast-paced barnburner. Anderson kept rolling with another 30-point game. Even though Oliver’s struggles continues, Scott lit it up with 40 points. It was enough to survive, 93-91. Anderson was the region’s MOP and Cremins was going to the Final Four.
THE 1990 FINAL FOUR
Duke played Arkansas in the early game. The Blue Devils led 46-43 at the half, but Mayberry was not shooting well for the Hogs. He would finish the game 6-for-18. Howell scored 18, but only got off nine shots from the floor. Miller was a non-factor inside. Day knocked down 27, but he was a lonely warrior.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils were controlling the inside. Abelnaby scored 20 in the post and Laettner put up a 19/14 performance. Henderson more than answered day, knocking down 28 and Duke gradually pulled away to a 97-83 win.
The showcase game of UNLV-Georgia Tech was electric. Lethal Weapon 3 came out firing. The trio combined to shoot 24-for-49 and put up 69 points. They led by seven at the half. But Tech got nothing inside. Even though Johnson didn’t have his best game, at 15/5, Butler stepped up with a clutch 13 points/10 rebounds. Augmon and Hunt went for 20-plus and UNLV slowly took control and won 90-81.
We had a highly anticipated final between two coaches looking for their first ring. To look at the stat sheet is to see Duke getting decent performances from Laettner and Abelnaby, who combined for 29/16. Henderson added 20 more.
The stat sheet also tells you Hurley was held to two points and what the numbers don’t say is how thoroughly the UNLV pressure defense disrupted the freshman point guard. The Rebels were in control from the start. Johnson was locked in and went for 22 points/11 rebounds. Hunt sealed his Final Four MOP honors with an electric 29-point night on 12-for-16 shooting. UNLV led 47-35 at the half and it didn’t seem that close. By night’s end, it was a 103-73 beatdown, the biggest margin of victory in championship game history. Tarkanian was finally a champ. Coach K would have to wait for next year.