Greatest Games: Duke-UNLV 1991

Posted by nvr1983 on April 3rd, 2008

As you may have heard, for the first time ever the Final 4 will feature four #1 seeds. Although some people have been complaining about the lack of surprises, I was quite content watching Davidson make it to the Elite 8. As for the top 4 teams in the country making it to the Final 4 being the latest sign of the college basketball apocalypse, I really don’t see it as being much different than several other years where only #1 and #2 seeds made the Final 4. Would you really feel any different about this Final 4 if Texas had beaten Memphis? I doubt it unless you are a Longhorn or Tiger fan. Anyways, with a little more than 36 hours until the tip of the first semifinal I thought I would whet your appetite for the potentially great games we may see on Saturday and Monday night. On to the game. . .

With the exception of the 1992 Duke-Kentucky East Regional Final, a case can be made that Duke’s upset of UNLV in the 1991 National Semifinals was the most significant game of the past 20 years. This was the game that put Duke and Mike Krzyzewski over the top going from lovable losers to the team to beat most years. While the Blue Devils still needed to beat Kansas in the championship game (featuring Grant Hill’s alley-oop dunk from Bobby Hurley), most college fans will remember this as the de facto championship game much like the Miracle on Ice (the US had to beat Finland to win the gold). To put this game in context, you have to remember that UNLV had crushed Duke the year before in the championship game 101-71 (a record 30-pt margin).

Here is the box score from the championship game (not a pretty picture unless you were a Duke hater at the time).

UNLV came into this game undefeated and was widely expected to become the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers (featuring Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson, and Scott May) to go undefeated. Many experts were already speculating about where this UNLV team ranked all-time not unlike what happened with a certain football team from Massachusetts this year (minus the videotaping, but probably with more hookers). Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels came into the game 34-0 beating their opponents by an average of more than 27.5 points while averaging a ridiculous 98.3 PPG. They were led by Larry Johnson (National POY), Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, and Stacy Augmon). Some of our younger readers may not realize how great these guys were in college so we’ll just say you should think about what Memphis did to Michigan State in the 1st half of their Sweet 16 game this year. Now imagine a team doing that every game. That’s what this UNLV team was like for the entire season. UNLV ran through the tournament with the exception of an 8-point victory against a Georgetown team that featured Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

On the other side of the ball, Duke came in with a respectable 30-5 record, but was only the #2 seed in its own region. After the championship game the year before nobody expected this game to be close. Duke had added Grant Hill to their roster, but he was only a freshman and nowhere near the player he was by the time he was a senior that carried a YMCA team to the 1994 championship game. In addition, the Blue Devils had lost 2 of their top players (Phil Henderson and Alaa Abdelnaby) from the year before to graduation. This was Duke’s 4th consecutive Final 4 appearance and 5th in 6 years, but they had failed to seal the deal and were becoming the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills before there were the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills. In the NCAA tournament, Duke advanced to the Final 4 through a relatively easy bracket thanks to some early-round upsets (beat a 15, 7, 11, and 4 seed to win the Midwest Region).

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube we can bring you footage from that game including a pregame and postgame clip.

[Editor's Note: For some reason the embedding isn't working properly except for the last video. All the videos are still up on YouTube. If you click anywhere in the box except on the "Play" button, it will load in an outside window. Sorry for the inconvenience, we're trying to figure out how to fix this.]

-Pre-game buildup and interviews with Tarkanian and Duke assistant coach (and current Harvard coach) Tommy Amaker

-Player introductions and opening minutes

-From 2:30 left in 2nd half until Laettner goes to the line.

-Laettner at the line with scored tied at 77 to post-game celebration.

-Newscast and reaction.

By the next day, the media knew they had witnessed one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. As the years passed and we only saw a few teams of the caliber of that UNLV team (’92 Duke and ’96 Kentucky), the upset grew in legend to the point where in 2000 The Sporting News ranked it as the 4th best biggest NCAA tournament upset ever and the ESPN Page 2 readers ranked it as the 4th greatest sports upset ever. I think the Page 2 poll is way off as I consider it a huge upset, but probably not in the same class as the others mentioned in that list. However, I think TSN probably comes pretty close as ridiculous as it sounds for a #2 seed beating a #1 seed to be such a big upset.

We all know what happened afterwards. Duke went on to win the first of their back-to-back titles and grew into one of the most powerful sports programs of the past 20 years while Jerry Tarkanian was fired by UNLV in 1992 and floated around the basketball universe including stops at the San Antonio Spurs and Fresno State. UNLV never reached the same heights again and only has had a measure of success with Lon Kruger getting them to the 2007 Sweet 16.

rtmsf addendum:  This is a great recap of the climate surrounding this game.  The 91 UNLV team was considered an absolute juggernaut.  We for one will never forget the highly anticipated 1-2 regular season matchup between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville (a place where the Hawgs were nearly unbeatable at the time).  UNLV absolutely blitzed the Hawgs to open the second half, never looking back in a display of athleticism and prowess virtually unmatched in all of our years watching college basketball.

One other point on this 91 Duke-UNLV game.  Two months after the game, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of UNLV players Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and David Butler sitting in a hot tub drinking beer with convicted felon and noted “sports fixer” Richard Perry (see below).

UNLV Hot Tub

Perry had been involved in a point shaving scandal at Boston College in the 70s, and there was no shortage of similar conspiracy theories being thrown around at the time based on UNLV’s confounding loss to Duke in the national semifinals.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire goes the saying, and the DOJ even felt there was sufficient cause to open an investigation into the possibility that some UNLV players may have fixed the game.  To date, we’ve never heard anything come out of these allegations, but there are some who remain convinced something fishy went on during that game.

A final point that nvr1983 touched on but sounds completely absurd today is that, at the time of that 91 game, Duke was “America’s Team.”  The hatred and vitriol enabled by the last 15 years of Dookie V. and ESPN had not yet taken hold, and most of the basketball public was happy to see the plucky guys from Durham (who were indeed becoming the Bills of college basketball) finally break through and win a title against the bullies from UNLV.  My, how things have changed.

nvr1983 (1290 Posts)


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24 Responses to “Greatest Games: Duke-UNLV 1991”

  1. jeff says:

    i still haven’t quite recovered from that UNLV ‘loss.’ even though i was at florida i have fond memories of that 90-91 UNLV team, watching their late-night games on ESPN, rolling through with a perfect record. what a great team to watch. and then the duke loss. i never cared for duke one way or the other, but after that game i quickly found myself on the ‘hate’ side of the love-hate duke question. honestly, i was crushed. i wanted that vegas team to win it all and do it undefeated. part of me still thinks the fix was in, but i know it’s not the case – it’s just a way to find meaning in what happened.

    great clips. great memories. i hate duke.

  2. lostthefight says:

    Duke might have won if they’d played on the level. However, until there is information to explain the relationship with Rick Perry I think we have to assume the worst. That picture is black and white.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a Kansas fan, at first blush, I feel that Memphis vs. KU could be that same kind of upset, although given that North Carolina was supposed to crush Kansas, KU may get all the hype this week rendering the comparison useless.

  4. Rob says:

    I saw the 1991 UNLV-Duke game on ESPN classic and i noticed that even during the player introductions something was bothering the UNLV players. When the starting 5 were introduced for both teams, i saw enthusiasm on the Duke side whereas the UNLV players seemed pre-occupied with straight faces. Who knows maybe the UNLV players knew something or were paid off to throw the game to make Duke look as if they were the better team that day, just my opinion.

  5. David Rives says:

    All you have to do, to know the fix was in, is go thru the entire tape of the game and count the number of times the ball just “magically” slips thru Stacy Augmon’s hands, at ABSOLUTELY THE MOST CRITICAL POINTS IN THE GAME (and keep in mind, those of you who were not old enough to see UNLV play that year: what you’re talking about, with Augmon, is someone with possibly the “SUREST” hands in the game at that time [think Chris Webber taking down a rebound when he was with Michigan]. So, we’re not talking about some “spaz” here, who you’d EXPECT to let the ball slip thru his fingers every now and then. Uh-uh: this was “vise-grip” Augmon doing that!)
    At first, I just thought it was because he was stoned on cocaine, like so many players of that era. But now that I know about the Rick Perry thing………
    Anyway, watch the tape and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  6. Maze says:

    Greatest game college basketball, well…………….1983 semifinal Houston vs Louisville. Great energy in on every play, lot of great physical rebounding. In your face dunks all night, from bothsides. Well to me, anyway the greatest game.

  7. joe says:

    One thing wrong about the ‘game fixing’ conspiracy theories. Both Augmon and Johnson could’ve left UNLV early as NBA Lottery pick locks. Both were virtually guaranteed millions. If either Augmon or Johnson were stupid enough to fix the game they would not only have risked their NBA careers but their personal freedom as well. I don’t ever recall hearing anyone in any sport being paid $10 million to throw a game because that’s about what NBA lottery picks were pulling in at that time. The ‘fix’ theory only works for people who don’t think much of Las Vegas or Tarkanian and don’t have the capacity to look at the situation from an objective point of view.

  8. rtmsf says:

    Joe – I appreciate your point about the amt of money that players could have made by going pro, but I think you miss one key element of the theory of the ‘fix.’

    That being that it happens when a player/official/whomever gets in too deep with gambling debts, and then the bookies/unsavories have a great amt of leverage over that person to the extent of threatening not only their safety but their livelihood.

    Just like the Tim Donaghy situation, where he got himself in trouble by becoming too indebted on other forms of gambling, the situation here could have been that those players were put in a position of having to do what they’re told (point-shave) or face certain exposure (which would have effectively ended their careers – ie. none of those millions of dollars).

  9. jbh says:

    I’m not sure if vegas threw the game or not, but one thing is for sure – Coach K out-coached Tark. (it hurts me to say that being a unc fan) They doubled up Johnson and then didn’t let Anderson hunt rip them from long range like the year before.

  10. Marques0008 says:

    That was easily one of the worst officiated games, ever broadcast on national tv. Augmon could not hold on to the ball(he was considered sure handed). Every time anyone came within two feet of Bobby Hurley it was a foul. He would not be picked for a 5on5 on most playgrounds nationwide. It was a sham! UNLV went into Arkansas that year and beat the Razorbacks in their toughest game of the year. Aftermath of this game, Laettner made the dream team over Shaq!! Duke’s is good, but somehow everyone thought a Duke win would benefit the college game, in the same way the NFL is under the impression, as the Cowboys go, so does the league. Gotta have the white hero. Laettner & Hurley were roasted in the NBA, on a nightly basis.
    I understand the need for a “certain type” individual to represent a sport for marketing purposes, but at least insure they have what it takes to pull off the farce.

  11. Snyd' Fu says:

    How about just giving credit where credit is due. Duke won the game, and all of the UNLV fans just can’t accept a loss. As a big Duke fan for more than 25 years, I have had to endure a lot of the Duke-hating that has gone on during that time, and when we lost to UCONN in ’99 or Indiana in ’02 (or any of the other “upset” losses you can think of), I did not scream about any “fixing scandal”. (However, I do believe Carlos Boozer was fouled on the putback attempt of the missed FT at the end of the Indiana game in the Sweet 16 in ’02 :)) I think one thing that stands out to me is that with that group of players from the Runnin’ Rebels and Tark the Shark, it is entirely believable that they would have done something like that.

  12. rtmsf says:

    It’s one thing when a team loses a close game and fans blame the refs for being crooked b/c they’re mad.

    It’s quite another when a team loses a close game and there are photos released that show key players hanging out in hot tubs with convicted felons who admitted to fixing games.

    That’s not proof in and of itself that the UNLV players were in on a fix or shaving, but it goes way beyond the normal griping of fans in general.

  13. JohnnyJA says:

    I remember sitting on the beach in Huntington Beach, California, not 30 feet from from the Pacific, listening to that UNLV/Duke game. I was 21 at the time and the second it was over, I was talking fix. This was before the pictures and the allegations of point shaving came out.

    I am so glad to read that not everyone has their heads stuck in the sand about the issue pf point shaving in college basketball. I think it goes on a lot more than we know. A lot more than the BC or Tulane scandals.

    There was no way on the face of God’s green earth that UNLV was losing that tournament. They were the most talented NCAA team I have ever seen and I am a rabid college hoops fan thanks to my Dad. So for 34 years or so, back to 1978, that UNLV team is the best IMO. They just shelled opponents – good opponents as well as bad ones.

  14. Daredevil says:

    I don’t buy the point shaving allegations. Those players could have left early rather than go for a repeat and already make millions. I think the officiating on the other hand was woefully and absurdly one-sided. Flgrant fouls uncalled when Duke committed them. The call on Greg Anthony that got him fouled out was suspect, too. And how do refs make the call they did to put Laettner at the line near end of the game?

  15. Daredevil says:

    I do think that while one can claim Duke may not be as talented as UNLV, they do have talent- that’s for sure. Enough to win by around 20 pts per game the next year rolling through the tough conference they are in, the ACC.

  16. J Gutierrez says:

    I also have never recovered from that loss. Fix or not I was a rabid UNLV supporter until that point. Dr. Maxson fired all of us & got what he wanted. Get rid of Tark who was a “Father Flannigan” type who would pay for a kid to go to the dentist in an emergency & get discplined for it. There will never be an NCAA team with that kind of talent. I attended most of those games. I still hate Duke & I hate Steve Alford too.

  17. Steve M says:

    I was a student at UNLV when they won it in 90 and had transferred to UT Austin in 91′. That was the most devastating sports loss for me and nothing else came close until last year’s Texas v Alabama NC game.

    Without Perry’s involvement UNLV would have beaten Duke by 30, again. I’m sorry but those who can not admit how much of a mismatch that game was are the ones showing bias. There was just no way in hell Duke could have squarely beaten that UNLV team at the time.

    The photo of the players lounging in a hot tub with a crooked point shaver a short time before the game tell it all. Those players use to hang out at Perry’s house all the time playing hoops and partying. A signs point to a fix.

  18. Adam says:

    “Those players use to hang out at Perry’s house all the time playing hoops and partying”.

    So why didn’t they throw other games? Why not wait till the championship game? Why lose to Duke?

    If UNLV and Duke would have played 10 times that year, UNLV would win 8. However it just so happens that they won that game. They controlled Larry Johnson and that got a hand in Hunt’s face. The Hill Boys were a dramatic upgrade in athletic ability and say what you want about Laetener he was a beast in college. Just give it up already and admit Duke one that 1 game.

  19. Peter, Dallas says:

    UNLV player would’ve squealed by now for $15k from the Inquirer (see, Anderson Hunt, career at Burger Palace). The “fix” would’ve been against a spread of well over 5 pts – so why “intentionally” miss shots when UNLV never led by more than 5 (2nd half, 11:33 mark); why miss a shot after the 11:33 mark; why go down 15-8 to start? There was nowhere to make money on the fix – no line on games involving Nevada-teams or in-state events, no offshore-casinos or on-line betting in 1991, no line in the UK for college hoops. So you’re down to illegal bookies, which is not the place to make a big score, and, again, the spread would NOT have been 5 points or less. That, and you don’t fix big games – it draws the attention of, for example, the DOJ. You fix games at Boston College.

    Or: UNLV was overconfident, didn’t take Duke seriously. Duke matched-up well (as Tark said) and wanted revenge. UNLV played a watered-down schedule, in a horrible Big West, only 3 Top25 games all year (+7 @#2Ark, hardly a “blitz”, +12 twice vs. #15NMState, trailed badly in one of those). Against stiffer competition – in the Tourney played a 16, 8, 4 and 3 seeds, beat unranked Gtown +12, #10Utah +17, #13SHall +12. Duke in the Tourney beat a 7 (by 15), an 11 (by 17), a 4 (#20StJ by 17), #12Kan (by 7). Duke had experience in close games, UNLV had none. UNLV only knew how to run – you had to slow them down – Duke doubled Johnson, played face-up on Augmon rotating who guarded him, and committed to defense (UNLV never played D), held them to 21 under their average. Duke was plenty good – 4th of 5-straight Final Fours, 1st of 2 titles in a row, over 30 Ws on an infinitely tougher schedule, Laettner, Hurley (NCAA career assists leader, but not good enough for your 5on5?), Grant Hill (even as a frosh; already a defensive specialist), 5 players averaging over 11 ppg. Tark was out-coached – Duke had 43 bench minutes (UNLV 23), 20 bench pts (UNLV 3), UNLV came out in its “amoeba defense” and immediately fell behind 15-8, switched to man but never recovered their swagger, where was the plan for the last shot – Johnson running around like a fool, UNLV couldn’t hit FTs (6-15) (Duke, 17-21).

  20. danny says:

    God you duke fans are idiots. This game was the most obviously fixed game in history. Also where did you guys hear anyone say that johnson,augmon were in on the fix. It was the rest of the team that wasn’t going to make the nba and that was their last chance at the big score. besides greg anthony who got a small nba contract. All the seniors were either gonna throw the game or go back to drug dealing. I would choose throwing the game for some big bookies. Also the spread was rediculous so the money to be made was insane. I bet scurry,hunt ,ackles and a few other seniors got a cold million to do it. You have to realize that the better a team is “unlv undefeated” will make for alot bigger spreads and make alot more money for people if they lose. For gods sake I went too a unlv senior all american autograph signing at palace station that year and Larry Johnson drove off in a brand new corvette.

  21. Peter, Dallas says:

    I love unlv fans – you’d rather believe your heroes and classmates were dirty enough to throw away a title than believe they could lose. Once. To a Top10 team. By 2.

    Danny, nice way to miss the point AND fail to understand how a spread works. No one claims Duke was “better”; the upset is not nearly as unbelievable as current myth or the then-publicity make it sound – #2 over #1 is simply not the same as #15 over #2, which is a BIG upset. Or are we now accusing Syr of throwing the game to Richmond (same tourney).

    You don’t make more if the spread is high, the spread is set (and moves) to insure even-money on either side. You’d have to bet straight-up (Duke to W). (Like when Rupp’s UK All-Americans threw the opening round NIT game for $1500/person to the bottom seed, eventually getting banned from both college and NBA ball). And again, there was no line, there was no betting, there was nowhere to lay off a big bet, and certainly not straight-up. Plus, if you’re right that the off-books line would have been huge, why throw the game – just win by less than the oh-so-big spread. Problem w/that is the 15-8 start, the 2 pt lead at half, the 5 pt max lead, then the loss. It won’t wash unless you believe it was a shave that got out of hand, at which point we’re back to they just got beat.

    As with all conspiracies, no one agrees on who did it: Augmon/Johnson (read the string!) who touched the ball enough to do it but had no reason as they were due $MM in the NBA (to pay back bookies if you prefer) (plus Johnson’s stat line was fine, 5-10, 3-4), or Hunt/Anderson who might have needed the money (and so clearly couldve used the dough later from an “exclusive” to a reporter) but aren’t the one (Augmon) with the “mysteriously un-sure hands.” Certainly the bench players wouldn’t be trusted to effect the game. Or was it the refs? Get your story straight, explain where the money was being bet, what the spread/odds were (seriously, find one reference anywhere), who was in on it, what their motives were, why the DA found nothing, and then get back to us.

  22. JZ says:

    There is so much wrong with this thread.
    Bobby Hurley not being good enough for pickup 5 on 5.
    laetnner and hurley getting torched nightly in the NBA?
    only larry johnson had a better nba career than laettner. not augmon, not greg anthony, not anderson hunt. so duke clearly had talent as grant hill was the most talented player on the court that night, then LJ, then laettner.

    as for larger spreads paying out more someone needs to google money line versus point spread.

    i do think bets could still be placed through illegal bookies.

    whoever said players probably made a million is way way off. 25K probably would have done the trick (per guy).

    i also agree to settle a debt the players and the fixer would have picked a random game against a division weakling and told the players “do not win by 28.5…capeche?”

    why mess with such a high profile game? seems unlikely.

  23. mempheel says:

    David Rives is right about Stacey Augmon: the guy was obviously on the take. Seemed so blatant watching the game live, and I’ve never come to that conclusion before or since. When the Rick Perry stuff came out, it all made sense…

  24. C.J. says:

    I don’t think UNLV players were on the take and I give credit to Duke, especially for Coach K outcoaching Tark all game long, but the game was ABSOLUTELY the WORST game ever officiated. If there was a fix, it was the NCAA and the refs. The NCAA hated Tark and banned UNLV the following season. How would that have looked if UNLV had won back to back titles and couldn’t defend them? It would have made the NCAA look like total A$$holes. So of course the NCAA had a huge interest in UNLV losing that year. (By the way, UNLV was like 37-2 the following season, a top 5 ranking with J.R. Rider and never got to play in the tournament).

    UNLV was on their way to a complete dynasty and the NC double a$$holes made sure that was NEVER going to happen. Don’t believe me? Look at Anthony’s 5th foul, which was a totally obvious block and took points away from UNLV and put their all american PG on the bench with 4 minutes left. How about all the goaltendings called on UNLV which were simply blocks. They weren’t even close to being on the way down.

    This is the easiest fix ever to spot in sports if you watch the game. Only it wasn’t the players who fixed it, it was the league.

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