The 1991 Final Four was one of the greatest of all-time. It featured an epic semi-final game between Duke and undefeated UNLV and ended with Mike Krzyzewski winning the breakthrough national championship of his storied career. The 1991 Final Four also marked the arrival of Roy Williams, then the head coach at Kansas, and it saw the return of the legendary Dean Smith to the national stage. Let’s look back on the paths that Duke, UNLV, Kansas and North Carolina all took to get to Indianapolis.
Coach K’s program was clearly a national power, having reached four of the previous five Final Fours. But they were missing a ring and the previous year’s blowout loss to UNLV in the NCAA final still lingered.
The Blue Devils were led by Christian Laettner, who averaged 20 points/9 rebounds per game down low, while Bobby Hurley ran the show and averaged 11 points/7 assists. Other double-digit scorers included Thomas Hill, Billy McCaffrey and a still-unknown freshman named Grant Hill. Duke won the regular season title in the ACC, but a loss to North Carolina in the conference tournament final left them as the 2-seed in the Midwest Regional when March Madness arrived.
Duke got off to a slow start against UL-Monroe in the opener, only leading by six at the half. But the Blue Devils shot 60 percent and eventually pulled away to a 102-73 win. They kept the momentum going into the next game against Iowa, were up 15 by the half and concluded their weekend in Minneapolis with an 85-70 win.
Connecticut was waiting in a Sweet 16 matchup at the Pontiac Silverdome. A year earlier, the Blue Devils and Huskies waged an epic battle in a regional final. This year’s UConn team wasn’t the same, coming into the NCAAs as an 11-seed. Duke dominated down low, getting a combined 37 points from Laettner and fellow big man Greg Koubek in an easy 81-67 win.
The bracket continued to open when top-seeded Ohio State, led by Jim Jackson, lost in the other regional semi-final. St. John’s, a nice team, but not able to physically match up with Duke, was the last team standing in the way of another Final Four trip for Krzyzewski. And they proved to be little challenge. The Blue Devils led by thirteen at the half and cruised home to a 78-61 win. Hurley knocked down 20 points and was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
UNLV was primed for glory, as the key players from their 1990 NCAA championship team were mostly back in place. Power forward, Larry Johnson, was one of the great players in the nation and averaged 23 points/11 rebounds. Greg Anthony was good for 12 points/9 assists at the point. Anderson Hunt and Stacey Augmon both averaged 17 a night from the wings.
The Rebels opened the season at #1 in the country and their pursuit of perfection was a national story from Day One. They won a high-profile game at #2 Arkansas in February, rolled through a mediocre conference schedule and were still seeking the perfect season come March, as they were installed as the #1 seed in the West Regional.
UNLV began the final stage of their quest in Tucson and rolled Montana 99-65 behind 20-plus point performances from Johnson, Anthony and Augmon. The second game against Georgetown was more anticipated—the Hoyas had underperformed during the regular season, but had terrific big men in Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. In a tough defensive game where both teams shot sub-40 percent from the floor, Johnson was the difference. He went for 20/10 and led a 62-54 win.
There were no bracket breaks for the Rebels at the regionals in Seattle. The top four seeds all advanced and Utah was the next opponent. The Utes, led by Josh Grant, were able to hang with UNLV on the boards and only trailed 41-35 at the half. The UNLV formula of Johnson and terrific balance was too much though. “LJ” went for 23/13, five more players scored in double figures and Anthony handed out ten assists in the 83-66 win.
Seton Hall, the 3-seed, knocked off Arizona in the other regional semi. The Pirates were only two years removed from reaching overtime of the NCAA final. Like Utah, they matched up on the boards and were in the game at halftime, only down 39-36. And like Utah, they couldn’t hold off Johnson forever. He delivered a 30-point performance they keyed the 77-65 win. UNLV was back in the Final Four and Johnson an easy choice for Most Outstanding Player.
Roy Williams was an unproven coach in his third year in Kansas. He delivered a 30-5 season in 1990, but a Round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament left a bad taste in the mouth. Williams, over the years at Kansas and North Carolina, has coached a lot of great players. The 1991 Kansas team wasn’t loaded with them .
Terry Brown, the 6’2” guard, was the leading scorer with 16 per game. Mark Randall averaged 15/6 at power forward. Adonis Jordan and Alonzo Jamison were double-digit scorers. None of those names has stood the test of time. But as a group they came together and shared the regular season championship of the old Big Eight Conference. After a loss in the league tournament, they ended up on the 3-line of the NCAA bracket and placed in the Southeast Regional.
Freedom Hall in Louisville was the venue, and Kansas started with an ugly game against New Orleans. The Jayhawks were a little less ugly and survived it, 55-49. They were much sharper against 6-seed Pitt, a team led by future Arizona head coach Sean Miller at point guard. The Jayhawks shot 52 percent, kept Pitt under 40 percent from the floor and won 77-66.
Kansas was an underdog against 2-seed Indiana at the regionals in Charlotte. But the Jayhawks blew out the Hoosiers from the opening tip, taking a 49-27 lead by halftime. Brown knocked down 23 points while Jamison added a 14/10 night. The final was 83-65.
Another favorite, this time top-seeded Arkansas, was next in line. This time it was a dominant second half that delivered the Jayhawks. After trailing by twelve at the half, Kansas unleashed after intermission. They won the second half by a stunning 58-34 and the basketball game by a 93-81 final. Jamison, whose 26/9 game led five double-figure scorers, won MOP honors.
Dean Smith had reached seven Final Fours in his career coming into the 1991 season, but he hadn’t been this far since his national championship run of 1982. This edition of the Tar Heels was led by Rick Fox, a key part of future Los Angeles Lakers championship teams with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Fox averaged 17 points/7 rebounds/4 assists per game. Hubert Davis, George Lynch and Pete Chilcutt were good for double-figures and point guard King Rice oversaw the balanced attack.
North Carolina was ranked in the Top 10 for the entire season, but two regular season losses to Duke cost the Tar Heels the ACC title. They still went 10-4 in a league that sent six of its eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. And their victory in the conference tournament earned them the #1 seed in the East Regional.
UNC came out smoking as they tuned up against Northeastern, leading 50-29 at the half and winning 101-66. A second-round game with Villanova also provided minimal stress—the Tar Heels kept the Wildcats to 41 percent shooting and coasted to an 84-69 win.
North Carolina arrived in East Rutherford to find a gutted bracket in which they were the only favorite to survive. A pair of double-digit seeds, Eastern Michigan and Temple, were the opponents on Friday and Sunday.
Eastern Michigan stayed close for a half, but Carolina was able to get easy points thanks to a rebounding edge of 38-26 and a free-throw scoring advantage of 17-6. Hubert Davis’ 18 points led the balanced offense and the second half was a rout that ended 93-67.
Temple’s excellent senior guard, Mark Macon, had delivered the Owls to this point in the tournament and with 31 points in the regional final, he nearly broke Tar Heel hearts. Davis and Fox each scored 19 for UNC, while Fox and George Lynch combined for 15 rebounds. North Carolina survived, 75-72. Macon got the consolation prize of Most Outstanding Player, but UNC was finally going back to the Final Four.
THE 1991 FINAL FOUR
Kansas-North Carolina got Saturday afternoon started. It was a good game, but one that Kansas seemed in control throughout. They led 43-34 at the half and a battle between two big teams it was the Jayhawk front line that delivered. Randall was good for 16/11, Jamison grabbed eleven rebounds and Richard Scott came off the bench to give 14/6 in 16 big minutes. Fox struggled, shooting 5-for-22 and Davis’ 25 points weren’t enough to compensate. Kansas won, 79-73.
The showcase game of Duke-UNLV remains an all-time classic. It was tight all the way, with the Rebels fighting to make history and the Blue Devils fighting for redemption. UNLV dominated the glass, to the tune of 39-21. Duke got the free throw line, going 17/21 compared to 9/15 for the Rebels. Laettner knocked down 28 points, while Anderson Hunt went off for 29. The key? Johnson was held to 13 points, Anthony fouled out late in the game and Duke pulled out a 79-77 game for the ages.
On Monday Night, Duke kept it going. They took a 42-34 lead in a first half highlighted by an epic alley-oop dunk from Grant Hill. Even though the Blue Devils were again beaten decisively on the boards, they again got a huge advantage at the foul line. Duke went 20/28 at the stripe compared to 4/8 for Kansas. Laettner’s 18 points/10 rebounds sealed his Most Outstanding Player choice. Randall got 18/10 himself for the Jayhawks, but Brown and Jamison combined to shoot 7-for-25. Duke’s 72-65 win gave the program its long-sought first national championship.