UNLV entered the Final Four 34-0 and faced Duke, a team the Runnin' Rebels beat by 30 in the 1990 final. Duke pulled off the upset 79-77 and went on to win its first national title.
Photo: Al Behrman/AP
Photo: Al Behrman/AP

Top 10 Greatest Final Fours of all-time: No. 9 — 1991

There won’t be a Final Four this year — Atlanta’s loss after the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley, a 2015 inductee of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, will present his list of the Top 10 Final Fours of all-time. The list will be presented in reverse order, culminating with the greatest men’s basketball championship.

Today: No. 9 — 1991

Lots happened in this one. Roy Williams worked his first Final Four as a head coach. Mike Krzyzewski claimed his first NCAA title. Grant Hill, then a Duke freshman, authored the greatest dunk in any championship game.

The title tilt was, apart from Hill’s deposit of a 40-foot Bobby Hurley lob, a comparative snooze. (Duke beat Kansas 72-65.) After the palpitations of Semifinal Saturday, anything would have been. That was the afternoon-into-evening that saw Dean Smith, who would retire in 1997 as the winningest coach ever, ejected from a game that matched Smith’s North Carolina against Kansas, his alma mater — and also against Williams, his former assistant who’d left Chapel Hill for Lawrence, Kan.

Tar Heel fans considered Smith a saint. Rival coaches would hint, usually off the record, that the great man took great glee in getting under someone’s skin. On March 30, 1991, the skin belonged to referee Pete Pavia, known for a thin epidermis. In his career, Pavia ejected Georgetown’s John Thompson and UConn’s Jim Calhoun. He’d ejected Oklahoma’s Billy Tubbs in the NIT final three days earlier.

The flashpoint came with 35 seconds left and the Heels down five. Carolina’s Rick Fox had fouled out. Smith, who’d incurred a technical from Pavia late in the first half for grousing about Pete Chilcutt’s third foul, kept asking how much time he had to sub for Fox. Pavia answered with a disqualifying T. The ejected party made a production of his exit, shaking hands with Williams and the Kansas players before leaving the court. A CBS camera caught Smith smiling — or was it a smirk? — as he made his way to the locker room. Carolina lost by six.

The postgame briefings were epic. Smith claimed “the game was over” before his thumbing. (Wait. Didn’t Smith’s Carolina once rally from eight down with 17 seconds left against Duke?) He also claimed he wasn’t trying to get ejected, saying, “I’m not Billy Tubbs.” (See why other coaches loved him?) Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, head of the NCAA basketball committee, cited the “out-of-the-coaching-box” rationale for the disqualifying tech. (Delany played at Carolina under Smith.) John Feinstein of the Washington Post, in high prosecutorial dudgeon, demanded that Pavia face the assembled media. Heeding NCAA protocol, Pavia didn’t show.

And then, just as we scribes finished chronicling one improbable event, we returned to press row to witness another. El Deano getting the gate was about to become a footnote. Because Duke was locked in a close game against what was being called the greatest team ever.

UNLV was the reigning champ, having beaten Duke by 30 for the 1990 title. Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels arrived in Indy 34-0 and winners of 45 straight. Only two 1990-91 opponents — No. 2 Arkansas playing in Fayetteville and Georgetown in the NCAA round of 32 — had stayed within 10 points. Nobody had come closer than seven. But the Blue Devils, who’d been out of it by halftime a year earlier, hung close. When UNLV point guard Greg Anthony fouled out with 3:51 left, his mighty team fell to pieces.

Hurley hit a trey to bring Duke close. A driving 3-point play by Brian Davis put it ahead. Larry Johnson, the national player of the year, made one of two free throws to tie. Christian Laettner, among the greatest NCAA tournament players ever, made a pair with 12.7 seconds left. The Rebels rushed upcourt. The ball came to Johnson, open on the right wing. He had a clean look at a 3-pointer. For reasons forever unknowable, he passed to Anderson Hunt, who had no look at all. 

Dean Smith’s bad day had gotten worse. Not only had his Heels lost with him running afoul of Pavia, but Carolina’s noisy neighbor had just hatched the greatest upset in semifinal history. Two nights later, Duke claimed its first national championship.

THE SERIES

No. 10: 1979
No. 9: 1991
No. 8: 1968
–♦–

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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