The 1991 Duke Blue Devils were a program that had arrived as a national power under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but the last line on the resume remained incomplete. Duke reached the Final Four four of the previous five years, but had missed the ring each time, twice in the championship game. The previous year they’d taken the worst beating ever administered in an NCAA final, as UNLV hammered them 103-73.
Power forward Christian Laettner was the focal point of the Blue Devil attack, a versatile junior who could score with his back to the basket or hit the jump shot. The year before he’d hit a last-second shot to put his team into the Final Four, and one year later he would hit one of the most famous shots in the history of the NCAA Tournament, one that beat Kentucky in a regional final.
In 1991, Laettner was supported down low by center Greg Koubek and sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley was back to the run the offense. Hurley enjoyed a strong freshman year after being thrust right into the fire. Hurley’s backcourt running mate was Bill McCaffrey, and Duke had tremendous talent and depth at swingman. Junior Thomas Hill would end up a third-team All-ACC selection, and he was joined by junior Brian Davis and an immensely talented freshman named Grant Hill.
Coach K put his team through a grueling non-conference schedule designed to get them ready for March. They went to the Preseason NIT and lost to second-ranked Arkansas, the team they’d beaten in the Final Four a year earlier. They also took an early loss to Georgetown, but those mixed in with quality wins over Notre Dame, Michigan and Oklahoma.
Krzyzewski didn’t give his team a break, even when ACC play began in January. They rematched with Notre Dame (the earlier meeting had been in the Preseason NIT) on the road and won 90-77. In one seven-day stretch through February, Duke played four games and even though one was a double-overtime loss at Arizona, they were not only getting used to playing top-caliber competition, but having to do so with rapid turnaround, developing the kind of mental toughness it takes to win six in a row in March Madness.
Duke was also winning in the ACC. After losing the conference opener to a solid Virginia team, Duke rattled off five straight wins, the last of which was a 74-60 home win over North Carolina that gave Krzyzewski’s team the frontrunning spot in their league. A loss to N.C. State to three days later in a letdown spot on the road temporarily slowed the momentum, but Duke closed January with wins at Clemson and Georgia Tech and then beat Virginia in their return trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The regular season ultimately came down to a winner-take-all battle in Chapel Hill, as both the Devils and Heels sported 10-3 records. In front of a hostile crowd, Duke took home the ACC championship with an 83-77 win. Even though a conference tournament loss to the Heels left them with a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Dookies had plenty of reason for optimism as they began their final push for a championship.
UNLV had not only demolished Duke in the previous year’s final, they had dominated all of college basketball in 1991.Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were undefeated and a top-heavy favorite to be the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to win a national championship with a perfect season. North Carolina’s ACC tourney win got them the top seed in the East, with the other #1 seeds including Arkansas and Ohio State, the latter who held the favorite’s role in the Midwest Region where Duke was shipped.
The Blue Devils opened the tournament in business-like fashion, taking care of UL-Monroe and Iowa without any unnecessary drama and punched their ticket to the Pontiac Silverdome, where they would join UConn, St. John’s and Ohio State in pursuit of the Final Four.
Duke and UConn matched up in Friday’s regional semi-final. This was a rematch of last year’s epic regional final and a foreshadowing of a matchup that would only get bigger as the Huskies grew in stature. They weren’t quite there in 1991 and Duke was the better team. The Devils shot 56 percent from the floor and outscored UConn from the foul line 24-10, thanks to solid frontcourt scoring. Laettner scored 19, Koubek had 18 and Hurley dished seven assists in an easy win.
Then Duke got a bracket break, when Ohio State lost to St. John’s. On Sunday afternoon Duke looked to complete its strange run through the Big East in order to win the Midwest Region. They were in control against the overmatched Redmen (the school’s politically correct shift to the nickname “Red Storm” was still years away). Duke again shot over 50 percent from the floor. They again had a big scoring edge from the line, 23-4. They again got 19 from Laettner and in this game Hurley knocked down 20. The final was 78-61 and a fifth Final Four trip in six years was up next.
Indianapolis was the host city and Duke’s rival North Carolina had joined the party. They would play Kansas, who’d ousted the top two seeds in the Southeast in beating Indiana and Arkansas. But the nation was fixated on the Duke-UNLV rematch.
No one gave the Devils much of a chance. In retrospect, we should give a ton of credit to Tarkanian. Because while his team had National Player of the Year Larry Johnson at power forward and a future NBA point guard in Greg Anthony, the Rebels were not demonstrably more talented than Duke, with Laettner leading the way. But that was the perception at the time and it was assumed that UNLV would not only supplant ’76 Indiana in history, they would do it right in the Hoosiers’ backyard.
I had the good fortune to attend this game. I was going to school in Indiana at the time and somehow managed to get into Saturday’s games for $50. We were sitting just off the Duke student section and while the view of the game in the Hoosier Dome left a lot to be desired, we were surrounded by Duke alums who’d traveled to the previous Final Fours and were desperate to be the ones celebrating on Monday night.
The game was a classic in every sense of the word. Prior to the tournament, NBC commentator and former Marquette coach Al McGuire had offered his thoughts on what it would take to beat UNLV. McGuire said that anyone who picked against the Rebels was doing it for shock value, but there was one narrow window where they could be beat.
Because it would take a sterling coaching effort, only Dean Smith, Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski had a chance, in the view of McGuire. Even then, it would have to take place on the Saturday of the Final Four when there was a full week to prepare. And even allowing that, Anthony had to get in foul trouble.
On Semi-Final Saturday, with five minutes to go in a tight game, Anthony fouled out. Everything was all there as McGuire had predicted, and it was still coming right down to the wire. Laettner would score 28 points and grab 7 rebounds. Davis came up big with 15. Duke again shot over 50 percent from the field and had their free-throw scoring edge at 17-9. Because Vegas dominated the glass (39-21 in rebounding), they still had a chance to win at the end. Trailing 79-77, Rebel guard Anderson Hunt, who’d scored 29 points, got a clean look at a three-pointer. He missed. Duke had pulled the upset.
The win exorcised the demon of last year’s title game humiliation, but Duke still needed one more win to complete their coach’s vindication. Kansas stood in their way, and for Duke that was akin to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team having to play Finland for the gold medal after beating the Soviet Union two nights earlier.
Roy Williams was making the first of what would be four trips to the Final Four as Kansas coach and three more (and counting) as North Carolina boss, including national titles in 2005 and 2009. It wasn’t a team of breathtaking talent, led by Mark Randall down low, along with Terry Brown and Adonis Jordan. The Jayhawks had been seeded third in the Midwest and their wins over Indiana, Arkansas and UNC were all a break for Duke.
The Devils didn’t let down on Monday and their victory formula held firm. Shooting percentage from the floor—56. Free-throw scoring margin—20-4. Laettner with 18 points, Hurley with 12. Randall played a nice game with 18 points of his own, along with 10 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. The lasting visual image of this game is an incredible dunk by Grant Hill. An alley-hoop pass from Hurley on the fast-break was overthrown and going out of bounds. Hill, on the dead run, leapt and caught the ball with his right hand and before falling out of bounds slammed it home in one fell swoop.
The lasting legacy of the game was that Mike Krzyzewski had a ring. As of this writing he has four, and it seems hard to recall there really was a day when Duke was the program everyone wanted to see get over the hump just once.