The 1991-1992 Duke Men’s Basketball season preview began this way: “When four starters return to any college basketball team there is always cause for celebration. When the four starters return from a team that captured the national championship the year before, the possibilities seem endless.”
Such was the atmosphere around Cameron Indoor Stadium in the fall of 1991. The 1990-1991 NCAA championship victory the year before marked Duke’s first basketball national title. With a roster that included ACC Athlete of the Year Christian Laettner, All-ACC guards Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill, sophomore Grant Hill and four additional returning letterwinners, the Blue Devils were poised to defend their title.
A national television audience looked on for the November 23 exhibition game between basketball’s super powers, Duke University and the Soviets. It marked the debut of a rising power in freshman Cherokee Parks as he thrilled the crowd with 19 points and four blocked shots in the 90-70 victory.
Christian Laettner missed the only game of his collegiate career in the 1991-1992 season opener against East Carolina. Laettner suffered a bruised foot against the Soviet Selects to break a streak of 86 straight starts going into the game. Duke handled the loss well in scoring a 103-75 victory over the Pirates.
On December 14, Duke faced future NCAA championship opponent Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Blue Devils were 6-0 heading into the night, having swept four of the five previous teams by at least a 25 point margin. After leading by as many as 17 points early in the second half, Duke came back from a two point deficit when Bobby Hurley scored five points in the last two minutes of regulation play to secure a 88-85 victory.
The ACC season started strong, with solid victories over Virginia, Florida State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State. Along the way, junior Bobby Hurley set the school record for most three-pointers made against Maryland while Christian Laettner registered his first double-double of the season against Georgia Tech with 33 points and 11 rebounds.
On February 1, 1992, Duke celebrated its 500th win in Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 100-71 blowout against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
The first real challenge of the ACC season came against perennial rival North Carolina on their home court in Chapel Hill. The pristine Smith Center rocked and was nearly as loud as nearby Cameron Indoor Stadium. Bobby Hurley broke his foot midway through the first half...but played anyway. Twice in the game’s final minute, Christian Laettner had a chance to tie the score with a jump shot but both attempts trickled off the rim and ended in the hands of the ninth-ranked Tar Heels. In the end it all added up to a 75-73 North Carolina upset victory over top-ranked Duke.
As tournament timed approached, Duke had only suffered two losses: one to North Carolina and a second against Wake Forest in late February when Duke squandered a 10-point lead in the game’s final five minutes to fall to the Demon Deacons 72-68. With 11 of the top 12 teams in the country losing during the week, Duke stayed on top of the polls.
Brian Davis and Christian Laettner had won just about every prize imaginable in their four-year Duke careers except one, the ACC championship. Duke recorded its third victory of the season over Maryland in its ACC tournament opener at the Charlotte Coliseum. The Blue Devils continued to pick up steam for its annual March run with a 89-76 victory over Georgia Tech in the semifinals.
But it was their crushing 94-74 defeat of North Carolina in 1992 ACC final that brought redemption after the previous year’s 22-point loss to UNC in the same game. Laettner left nothing to chance with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven steals and an awe-inspiring 5-of-8 shooting day from three-point range. Five others hit double-figures, including Grant Hill who hit all eight his shots and added seven assists.
With eight straight trips to the NCAAs, Final Four berths every year but one since 1986, and the 1991 championship securely under its belt, the 1992 Duke squad was looking to make history when it opened the tournament on March 19.
Duke was placed in the East Regional for the 12th time in school history and was paired with Campbell University in a first round matchup in Greensboro, N.C. Duke’s defense limited Campbell to just 16 points and 18.8 percent shooting from the field in the first half as the Blue Devils opened a 20-point halftime lead. Laettner had 22 points and five steals in 32 minutes of action while guard Thomas Hill was fabulous in connecting on 8-of-10 shots for 20 points and grabbing five rebounds. Coach K cleared the bench in the game’s waning moments as Marty Clark, Cherokee Parks and Erik Meek each scored four points to end the game 82-56.
It was ironic that Duke’s second round opponent in the 1992 NCAA Tournament was also its second round opponent in the 1991 NCAA Tournament. The Iowa Hawkeyes returned all five starters but shot just 29 percent from the field in the first half and 38.7 for the game while the Blue Devils opened an insurmountable 24-point halftime cushion at 48-24. Iowa hung tough with a 2-3 zone and multiple presses to make the final score, 75-62, respectable.
It was on to Philadelphia and the battle of Hurley brothers in the regional semifinal matchup between Duke and Seton Hall. Duke’s Bobby (a junior) and Seton Hall’s Danny (a freshman) were the subject of most of the pregame conversation, including their parents on ABC’s “Good Morning America” the day of the game. The two teams flexed their defensive muscle early and often to turn the game into a halfcourt battle of attrition. Duke led 68-62 with 2:45 left in the game, turning the game into a free throw shooting contest which Duke easily won, hitting 24-of-31 free throws to end the game 81-69.
Duke’s Elite Eight matchup against Kentucky on March 28, 1992 saw two of the most famed programs in basketball history take aim at each other. Kentucky did everything possible to dethrone the champions and appeared to have Duke right where it wanted them with 2.1 seconds to play in the overtime period after Sean Woods drove by Hurley and banked in a one-handed shot over Laettner for a one-point lead.
Then, in a season equally filled with magical moments and overwhelming adversity, a miracle took place. Grant Hill flung the undefended inbounds pass to Laettner who leaped to catch the ball over John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus. Time seemed to stand still as Laettner faked to his right, turned to his left and lofted an 18-footer that found nothing but net as time expired. The Spectrum crowd erupted as the Duke players jumped on Laettner to celebrate another trip to the Final Four and a 104-103 victory over Kentucky.
Up next was Indiana, an intriguing matchup between the two winningest programs in NCAA Tournament history. The media also focused on the battle of wits between Bob Knight and Krzyzewski, who had played for Knight at Army and later coached with him at Indiana. Like politics, all of the extraneous focus had nothing to do with the final results.
The beginning of the second half, which began with Duke trailing by five points, 42-37, turned into one of Duke’s finest moments of the season. The Blue Devils reeled off 13 straight points and then made it a 21-3 surge to open the first 10 minutes of the frame to make the score 58-45 in favor of Duke. Free throws by Antonio Lang and Cherokee Parks closed out the 81-78 victory as the Blue Devils headed to the NCAA championship game for the third consecutive season.
The billing Michigan and Duke had entering the Metrodome on April 6th to decide the national champion read: “The Fab Five meets The Victory Tour.” Michigan’s five freshman starters had surprised everyone in advancing to the title game after knocking off top-seeded Ohio State in the Southeast Regional Final and cinderella Cincinnati in Minneapolis. Ironically, the two teams had already met once in a December matchup in Ann Arbor when Duke prevailed by the narrowest of margins, 88-85, in overtime.
Grant Hill made his first start since February when he was inserted for an injured Brian Davis, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as Duke stumbled out of the blocks but hung tough in trailing by just one at the half, 31-30. Much like the Indiana contest, the Blue Devils turned up the defensive pressure in the second frame, forcing Michigan into 29 percent shooting from the field and just 20 second-half points.
With 13.5 seconds remaining and a comfortable 20-point cushion, Coach K gave his starters one last curtain call to an incredible season-long journey. A roar echoed through the dome as players exchanged high-fives and hugs to start the celebration of the 71-51 victory.
As head coach Mike Krzyzewski, now the winningest active coach in NCAA Tournament play, would reflect at the end of the season, “Our road to the Final Four and ultimately to win the national championship was the toughest road we ever had to face...It also came at a time of the year when I didn’t know if our team could get emotional enough. The last two games the wear and tear began to show and we had to wait a half to get emotional enough. But what I love is that there was a lot of emotion left in my team and they rose to the occasion.”
Excerpts from Crowning Glory: The Story of Duke’s 1991 NCAA Championship Season and the Men’s Basketball 1991-1992 Yearbook. Crowning Glory is available for purchase at www.goduke.com.