From the beginning the goal was clear: win the national championship.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski made no bones about it as he began his 11th season at Duke University. He told his 13 players, assembling in the locker room for the first time in September, that it was their goal. Collective improvement every time they stepped on the court was necessary to focus on not only the ACC regular season and tournament championships but the title that had escaped the Duke program for 52 years.
Leading up to the glory-filled 1990-1991 season were many anxious moments, including a 30-point loss to UNLV at the 1990 NCAA championship game, Krzyzewski being wooed by the Boston Celtics, and a tiring summer which had Coach K leading the USA team (with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley) to medal-winning performances at the Goodwill Games and the World Championships.
All of that were memories and lessons as the 1990-91 schedule got underway at the Dodge NIT in mid-November. Five freshmen were amongst the Blue Devils, including high school All-America Grant Hill, who was projected as an instant impact player.
“From Day One it seemed we were destined to win it all,” he said following his first collegiate season. “There was a special quality, a closeness and a chemistry I’d never seen on a basketball team before.”
Sure enough, Duke rushed out to two quick and decisive victories in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 87-74 win over season-opener Marquette included a three-point jumper by Brian Davis just 1:14 into the new season, ironically the same player who would score the last hoop of the year with a breakaway dunk in the NCAA title game in Indianapolis.
The Blue Devils then headed to the Big Apple and Madison Square Garden, where they faced fellow 1990 Final Four member Arkansas, whom the Blue Devils had defeated to earn a trip to the championship game. This time the Razorbacks turned back Duke and advanced to the title game with a 98-88 win.
The month of December featured a road loss to Georgetown in the ACC/Big East Challenge and a key road victory at 11th-ranked Oklahoma which snapped the Sooners long home court winning streak. Duke triumphed 90-85 and finished the month with a 10-2 record.
The opening day of the Atlantic Coast Conference slate (Jan. 5) had the Blue Devils traveling to 18th ranked Virginia. They crushed Duke 81-64, making it time for a re-commitment to the season by the Duke players.
Unfortunately, the freshman Hill broke his nose at a late night practice session which caused him to miss the next three ACC games. Duke won all three of those games, thanks in part to the emergence of sophomore Thomas Hill. The 6-4 guard/forward had 22 points in an 89-67 win over Wake Forest and then added 20 more against fifth-ranked North Carolina five days later in Duke’s 74-60 victory over the Tar Heels. Hill would go on to become a starter in mid-February for the Blue Devils and earn third team All-ACC honors.
The ACC regular season championship came down to the final game against the chief rivals – North Carolina. The eighth-ranked Blue Devils were not intimidated on UNC’s Senior Day and hustled out to a 20-point margin in the early parts of the second half. The fourth-ranked Tar Heels came back but could never catch Duke as the Blue Devil seniors Clay Buckley and Greg Koubek finished their careers with a 3-1 record against Carolina in the Smith Center and a career-capping 83-77 victory.
A week later, the two famed squads met again in the ACC Tournament championship game. This time, Carolina triumphed 96-74 to hand Duke a decisive loss and leave the Blue Devils with a 26-7 record heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Coach K already owned the best record among active coaches in the tournament. 1991 was another chance to add to his streak of three straight Final Four appearances in his eighth consecutive NCAA bid.
It was apparent early that the Blue Devils meant business in their chance to go to Indianapolis. Duke disposed of Northeast Louisiana, Iowa, and Connecticut with little resistance leading up to the Midwest Regional title game against Big East member St. John’s. Pacing the victory, Hurley earned MVP honors in the region with 20 points in the title game and a remarkable 27-4 assist-turnover ratio in the four NCAA games.
Up first in the Final Four was UNLV, the team which had stunned the Blue Devils with a 30-point loss the previous year. The team owned a 34-0 record and had rarely been challenged. The fight was on and Duke kept the pressure on the Runnin’ Rebels. Finally, it came down to a little over two minutes to play and the Blue Devils down by a 76-71 count.
Hurley connected on a three-pointer when all seemed lost to make it 76-74 with 2:14 to play. Then Duke put on the defensive pressure and UNLV ran out the shot clock without a shot being taken. Next, Brian Davis took charge with a driving layup and a foul shot to give Duke a 77-76 lead.
After a Larry Johnson freethrow tied the score, the ball landed in Laettner’s hands on the offensive side and he was fouled with 12.7 seconds to play. He calmly converted the two charity tosses to give Duke a 79-77 lead which never changed.
Two nights later, in the most famed game of the college basketball season, Duke took the court against Kansas, which had defeated North Carolina in the semifinals.
The fatigued Blue Devils never faltered as Hurley and Grant Hill teamed up for a spectacular alley-oop dunk in the opening minutes to set the tone and Christian Laettner proved steady with a record-setting 12-for-12 performance from the free throw line.
It was a crowning glory to the spectacular season as the Blue Devils brought home the title with a 72-65 victory over the Jayhawks. Laettner earned MVP honors and Hurley averaged 12 points and eight assists in the two games. Sophomore Bill McCaffrey added 16 points in the title game to also earn a slot on the All-Final Four team.
The season was complete, the dream a reality. Duke had won the national championship and along the way captured the ACC regular season crown, a record 16-0 home record, its eighth straight NCAA appearance, a fourth straight Final Four berth and fifth in the last six years, and Krzyzewski was named the Kodak/NABC National Coach of the Year.
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.