#FlashbackFridayVideos: Duke upsets UNLV, 1991 Final Four

Each and every last Friday of each month, we here at South Shore Ave will be releasing #FlashbackFridayVideos, a segment focusing on classic music videos, classic sports games and general signature moments from back in the day…..except this month, there will be two of them. We’ll have quick rundown and explore all the angles that comes to our minds.

In the spirit of this basketball season that we call March Madness; my friend Headley Bent & I take you back to the 1991 Final Four, where one of the biggest upsets by one of the most hated teams happens. We chop it up here….. & yes, we’re still bitter 24 years later.

Cee: Before we jump into this game, let me paint the picture first….

1990, National Championship Game. On one side, you had the Duke Blue Devils, who had a prep-boy/great white hype persona to their team, & was led by its poster boy Christian Laettner, its prized freshman Bobby Hurley, Brian Davis and Alaa Abdelnaby. On the other side, you had the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, who had a swagged out/very athletic/very urban/very black team, & was led by Larry Johnson (complete with gold tooth), Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, and Anderson Hunt. One team looked like they listened to Bryan Adams & wore their sweaters around their waists, while the other team looked like they could have been extras in one of Ice Cube’s videos. Even though I was still a pre-teen, it really didn’t take long for me to see how this game was being perceived. It went past being about the two schools. It was Preppies vs. Hip Hop, Suburbs vs. Inner City, Whites vs. Blacks. Pick a side. Based on their style of play, the fact that they looked like me, & who I wanted to look like (based on their swagger levels), naturally, I chose to ride with UNLV. Long story short, UNLV beat the blue out of the Blue Devils 103-73, & I’m not even sure the game was that close. It was a complete domination which was only enhanced by the fact that you got to watch Laettner sit there with his dumbfounded smug look on his face while UNLV was running a never ending layup line. It remains to be the most lopsided margin of victory for a National Championship game in NCAA history.

Flash forward a year later. UNLV returned their core players, & ran roughshod over the nation. It was almost like watching an NBA team secretly play D-I basketball. Larry Johnson (who won the John Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year in ’91) demoralized everyone in his path like a dark-skinned Charles Barkley. Stacey Augmon was so athletic with his hops and length (he was called “Plastic Man” after all) he border-lined abused his opponents defensively and in the open court. Greg Anthony & Anderson Hunt, not only provided the team with steadiness, the team fed off their leadership and swagger. The team went 27-0 during the season, averaging a 27 point scoring margin per game. Read that again. It remains to this day, one of the greatest NCAA teams I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Predictably, the March Madness tourney came along and they ran through everyone on their way to the Final Four. Waiting for them in the Semi’s? Duke, a team they just finished molly-whopping 12 months prior, where both Hunt and Anthony treated Hurley like he was Superhead. These f***in’ Devil bastards wanna do this again? Bring that shit on!!

At the time, I would have bet my Nintendo, and my Double Dribble game, that another blowout was coming. It’s still hard for me to believe what transpired after that ball was tipped.

Headley: Where do I start? Duke vs. UNLV was almost like a race war. Or at the very least, similar to an episode of Games of Thrones, where the Houses of Lannister and Stark were at battle. They just didn’t mix. Let’s be real folks, if a brother back then said they favored Duke over UNLV, you were putting your jacket over the seat next to you in the cafeteria when you saw him exit the lunch line. The Running Rebels were the first team I actually had a hard-on for that wasn’t my home team. I was naturally a Montreal Canadians and Montreal Expos fan because that represented home. I don’t even know back then if I knew where Nevada was, let alone what the acronym meant. On my measly paper route job that I had, I scavenged up enough money to buy a UNLV hat, long sleeved Tee, and my prize possession… a UNLV letterman jacket!! Putting on that letterman jacket was my official flag. I didn’t even rock Expos & Habs gear like this. They were a team you were forced to notice even if you didn’t like them. And let’s be honest, I liked their deceitfulness even though it was only basketball.

Duke was the polar opposite. They were my generation of Hoosiers. Straight-laced.  Played basketball “the right way”, textbook like… just straight proper. One of my best friends Adam (whom I’ve known since we were 6yrs old, and with whom I still communicate with weekly) was the team captain of our high school b-ball team, was voted “most likable” by my senior class year, and could have starred in Saved by The Bell. Well, he was a Duke fan, and it just made sense. So when UNLV big-boy’d them in the Championship Finals the year before, it almost felt like Reparations. And it’s not like they didn’t have brothers on the team either. I mean there was no argument that after Laettner & Hurley, their core guys were black and ran from 3 – 6….. but they also looked like they wore their polo sweaters around their shoulders. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seem a Duke player with a tatted sleeve. I remember being so surprised when Jay Williams signed to Duke. A “one-and-done” type of player going to Duke?!?!? It seemed anti-Blue Devil. Then came along Loul Deng, Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, and now Jahlil Okafor in recent years, who have seemed to officially joined the pack. They even had their first release for disciplinary reason this season with the sex scandal respecting Rasheed Sulaimon. Now let be clear: Sex Scandal has nothing to do with race, in case of the event that some wacko reads this & tries to relate the two. Just saying, Duke basketball is not expunged from college controversy like they had been in the past years it seems.

Duke in years past, had always symbolized the Spurs with their play and conduct: professional, somewhat boring, nothing flashy, and always productive. So when UNLV, (the “Fab Five before the Fab Five”) came with their somewhat destructive/bravado/cocky but always productive style, an exact counterpart was formed.  It made the perfect Ying vs. Yang, Day vs. Night, Fast vs. Slow parity. And I was eating it all up.

FYI: For the record, I grew up more Antonio Lang than Stacey Augmon. For those who get it, get it, those that don’t… forget it.

Cee:  Let me be the first person to raise my hand for the “I don’t get it” group. Matter of fact, I want to be the leader of this movement, similar to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I want to walk the streets and lead protests & rail against anyone who chooses to be an Antonio Lang fan over Stacey Augmon. Once I’m too old and weary to carry the fight on, I’ll pass the mantle along to my kids & they can lead the next generation. If you said you chose Grant Hill over Stacey Augmon even during this time, I can be okay with that. I’d more than understand. But Antonio Lang?? He was a decent/good role player, got some nice putback dunks, some blocks, but outside of that, he’s kind of forgettable. What the hell did Antonio do that would even warrant this kind of favoring over Augmon? Is he your cousin? You swear you weren’t secretly a fan of Duke?

There’s only a handful of Duke players that I was a fan of in all my years of watching basketball. I loved Elton Brand. I was also a fan of Carlos Boozer, and him somehow falling to the 2nd Round of the 2002 NBA Draft is still a travesty. Out of the one-and-done Dookies, I think Jahlil Okafor might be my favorite right now. Jay Williams made me not miss Duke games when they were on TV (even though I loathed Duke), especially from his sophomore season on. He remains one of the best Duke players I ever saw that I liked. The other one is Grant Hill. Before all the ankle injuries that came after he left Detroit, Hill was one of my favorite players in 90’s. Hill’s all-around game & smooth style was to be awed. I didn’t fully appreciate him until his senior at Duke to be honest. So around this time, my pre-teen self was hating on Grant strictly because he wore Blue and White. But looking back at that game now, even as a Freshman, you can see the talent. He may have been trying to figure it all out still, but you can already see the world-class athleticism, the attacking, slashing (and smooth) skillset on display. He took it to UNLV right away. Duke didn’t have anyone like that the year before to throw at the Rebels, and that was a big difference. Unlike 1990, they weren’t backing down this time. Especially Christian.

I’ll say this about Christian: I may have hated him as much or more than Remy in Higher Learning, but I respected his talents……now. A 6’11 big man that could take you off the dribble with each hand, can shoot out to the 3-pt line, can bang in the post, and rebound, and he exhibited all of those talents in this game. He was so tough to guard and deal with, period. If he went to Syracuse, North Carolina, UCLA, or any other school outside of Duke, he probably may not have been hated on so much.

Man…… who am I kidding? F*** Laettner.

Headley: You don’t get it. I grew up not a Lang fan but with a Lang upbringing. Meaning I had grass on my front lawn. You’d think because of that I’d be more a Duke fan, but hell naw! It was all about the UNLV swag. But to be honest, Lang had one of the more memorable dunks I can remember in that era. Do you remember Acie Earl?!?! Iowa big man that was a 1st round draft pick by the Celtics? Actually ended his NBA career (albeit short one) on the Raptors bench. Well in college he was the block party. Earl was swatting basketballs like they were mosquitoes. So when Lang was leading a break and cut for a driving lane, I naturally thought he was going to try to lay it off glass, and out of nowhere he rose like the falcon and banged all over Acie Earl!! Does a tree make noise if no one is around? Well that was me in my parent’s basement going ballistic. I can’t find any clips of that play but it had to be the single-most impressive play I ever saw him do. Now, this is about 10 lines more than I thought I’d ever write about Lang. Back to the topic at hand.

The Kentucky Wildcats are trying to do what the Running Rebels didn’t do in 1991, and that’s go undefeated for an entire season in Division-1 basketball.  I don’t think people realize how difficult a task this is and how wonderful you need to play to get this done. A staggering stat is that UNLV’s average age was 22.5 years, which would be ancient in college now… which makes it even more impressive that the young Wildcats are on the cusp of going undefeated. But like the Running Rebels were a shoe-in to repeat, it takes only 40 minutes for that to be dashed away in a one-game elimination format which makes it so entertaining. A friend told me Vegas pulled in their highest winnings in the first weekend of March Madness this year. Only the New York Giants’ improbable Super Bowl win against the undefeated New England Patriots back in 2008, was a bigger heist. As the saying goes, “the game isn’t played on paper”. Duke had other plans, and it started unfortunately with Christian Laettner.

It was easy to hate on him, and I did. Clearly I wasn’t alone going with ESPN’s latest 30 in 30 installment which was cheeky entitled, “I Hate Christian Laettner”. He was naturally gifted and never looked like his hair came out of place. Although Shaq would later become a top five all-time NBA scorer, and the no. 1 pick of the NBA draft in front of Laettner, you couldn’t argue his selection to the original Dream Team of the 1992 Summer Olympics. In my opinion, he probably had the most impressive D-1 college basketball careers of all-time. Especially in an era where top players leave early to the pros, it’s a lock that he’ll keep that title. Shocking, his 13-year NBA career resulted in only one single All-Star appearance. Did you know Laettner grew up in Buffalo, New York, and his mother is born in Toronto?!?!? This dude could have played for the Canadian teams during Summer Olympics! I guess the Dream Team does have more caveat. Lol.  To this day, he holds The Christian Laettner Basketball Academy in Muskoka, Ontario annually. Maybe I shouldn’t hate on him so much anymore. However of all the Duke players, Grant Hill by far had the most successful NBA career (and he won off the court with Canadian girl Tamia) of either team. That’s a tall tale considering his career (3rd overall in ’94) ran short and seeing the other high profile players in the game like Johnson (1st overall in ’91), Laettner (3rd, ’92), Hurley (7th, ’93), Augmon (9th, ’91) and Anthony (12th, ’91). That’s incredible! Laettner and Hurley were the first pair of consensus All Americans to play on the same team since Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. Over half of the starting lineups of either side would end up being lottery picks. What a preview. And it was the least acclaimed NBA Analyst Greg Anthony who was the key to UNLV losing this match. When he fouled out with four minutes left, the curtains were closing on UNLV.

Cee: It’s funny you brought up the Giants shocking the Patriots, because that game, as well as this one, was one of the few times in life when I thought that the favorites were still going to win the game, no matter how close it looked. It shocked me back then just how close that game was, even in the second half. Johnson and Augmon weren’t having their greatest games at that point, but Anthony was still controlling things in the 2nd half (even dropping an And-1 on Hurley & stared him down while Hurley was still on his ass at the 49:30 min mark). Even at that point, you just knew UNLV will still take it. However, here’s the under-rated secret about that Rebel team: they weren’t that deep. Losing someone like Anthony at that point of the game was huge. Hunt could take over the PG duties if he had to, but it took away from his abilities to be unleashed as a scorer, & now he had the added responsibility of running the offense. If it happened at any point of time in the season, you could deal with it. But with the pressure of this game building, this damn Duke team going shot for shot with them, & trying to be the first team to repeat as champs since the UCLA teams of the 70s, you want all your weapons at your disposal at that moment.

Having that full arsenal is what got you there in the first place. Maybe you can win a close game with one of your core players still sitting on the bench, but with everything on the line, you don’t really want to find out that answer if you had to. With less than a minute to go, game tied at 77-77, and Duke milking it down on the last possession, was the official moment when I got that “pit in the bottom of my stomach” feeling. Once Laettner got fouled & was heading to the line, that feeling became way, way worse. Watching that “I’m better than you, & I’m going to shatter your dreams everybody” look on his face (you know, the same look he has in those crappy AT&T commercials he’s in with Shaq, Clyde Drexler and Dr. J, that won’t stop airing these days) while he walked to the line, was disheartening because above all else…… you knew he was making both.

Headley: I have to digress a bit and mention that guys like Johnson and Hurley’s careers were derailed by injuries too. Who knows what their professional careers would have looked like. Hurley was involved in a major car accident his rookie season, and never fully recovered. And as great an athlete Grandmama was, he’s known as much or more for his improbable four point play against the Indiana Pacers, in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals, than a bruising frontcourt player that would yoke all over your chin. And that’s a shame. A two-time all-star, by the time he left the Charlotte Hornets, was a shell of his old self because of deliberating back problems. Who knows what Johnson and Alonzo Mourning could have been if they stayed together. That frontcourt should have been as great as any. I just had to mention those two key factors, seeing it wasn’t only Hill that lost years to injury at the next level.

As for the game, to say Augmon wasn’t having his best game is an understatement. He was Mr. Butterfingers. I don’t know how many turnovers he committed, but he mangled so many nice passes and assists that I swear I was watching a skinnier version of Kendrick Perkins’ sorry ass in that game.

It was hard to believe the game was even close with how Johnson was gathering up rebounds like he was picking grapes. They must have ruled the 2nd chance points in the first half. It was like a prize fighter giving it all they got in the early rounds. Duke played it like a cagey boxer, just picking its moments and using the ring. It was a brilliant but gutsy move with Duke not covering center George Eckles early on. He was an All-American honorable mention and they treated him like Ben Wallace on offence. Duke basically played five-on-four on defense daring Eckles to shoot, but it more than worked out for them.

To me, Duke did enough trickery to keep the game close and when it came to crunch time, UNLV weren’t use to playing these crucial kinds of minutes in a close game. Not only did they have the pressure to repeat, but also no team had gone undefeated since the ’76 Indiana Hoosiers. More than anything else, the poise of Duke took over.  What’s even crazier is that their average age was 19.5yrs?!?! But with the steadiness of Anthony out of the game to monitor the tempo for UNLV, it became too much. It hurt my heart and crushed my spirit that the Blue Devils were the ones that deserved to win this game.

Cee: I think more than anything, the last possession of UNLV spoke volumes about how much they missed Anthony. They couldn’t even get a good shot off, & looked mired in confusion. After the whole season of success, it was weird watching how the story ended for UNLV. As the saying goes, everything ends badly, otherwise it would never end….and watching Duke beat Kansas two days later in a championship game that no one remembers (outside of Hill’s alley-oop) was as bad as it got. It set off a mini-dynasty that ended off with Duke repeating as champions in ’92, by beating the Fab Five (my other favorite college team). It capped off a four year run for Duke where they played in four straight final fours & anointed Laettner as one of the greatest college players of all time. It still annoys me to this day………. yeah….I’m done here…..

*** pushed out chair from laptop and storms off. ***


Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

To subscribe to The Baseline Blog, click onto the Follow button or by entering your email address. Very special thanks to Headley Bent for his contributions to this posting.


1 thought on “#FlashbackFridayVideos: Duke upsets UNLV, 1991 Final Four

  1. Pingback: Presenting……. South Shore Ave Radio! | The Baseline

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