DURHAM, N.C. – When the game ended, Duke having stymied Georgetown’s superstar freshman center to a mere 11 points and 5 rebounds, Coach K was so elated that he couldn’t help but cry.
"I am an emotional guy," he said, "though it doesn't always show. I got a little carried away there.”
The win sent the Blue Devils to their third consecutive Final Four, and was perhaps the first of countless memorable performances by their own blue chip freshman center, Christian Laettner. He had poured in a career-high 24 points in the contest, outdueling Alonzo Mourning, the most celebrated first-year college player of the 1988-89 season. Mourning had nearly made the U.S. basketball team the summer before, and was the showstopper for a Hoya squad that many thought would cruise to the national championship that season.
But in the first game between the schools since the 1930s, Coach K’s squad prevailed with a gritty performance that was decided by three 8-0 Duke runs, and the withstanding of a late-game Georgetown surge.
“It started to get all helter-skelter," then-Duke senior Danny Ferry said afterward. "At the point where things were really bad, we needed to come together."
And come together they did.
The Blue Devils were undersized, and had a considerably shorter bench, two concerns in particular that many fear will undue the 2009 iteration of Coach K’s team. Indeed, in that 1989 East Regional Final against Georgetown, only six players recorded more than 10 minutes of action, and all five starters played at least 32 minutes per game. Ferry, the versatile power forward to whom current Duke sophomore Kyle Singler is often compared, played 39 minutes of the slugfest against the Hoyas. Meanwhile, Georgetown went eight players deep, with another eventual NBA All-Star—Dikembe Mutombo—only racking up five minutes in reserve time.
It wasn’t all that Duke was up against, however. The Georgetown coach, John Thompson, was coming off a stint as the U.S. Olympic team coach, where the Americans earned a bronze medal. Duke fans chided him for the effort regardless, with taunts of, “If you can’t win gold, be a Hoya.”
But the Hoyas seemed to be in control in the second half until Phil Henderson posterized Mourning with a soaring dunk, sending Duke’s fans—and players—into a tizzy.
"What an emotional lift when your skinniest guy goes over their giant and slams it," said Ferry. "You feel a flame in your gut."
Duke’s fans back in Durham felt some flames of their own, as they ignited an impromptu bench burning at the game’s conclusion in celebration of the upset victory. The stakes in the rivalry have yet to match that fever pitch in the five times they have met since, but the ferocity has been just as evident. Coach K holds the edge, 4-2, and the most recent game in the series, a physical 61-52 slobberknocker in December 2006.
Saturday afternoon’s contest brings with it many parallels to that 1989 showdown, however. Georgetown will roll into Durham with yet another freshman phenom at center, Greg Monroe; Duke will counter with its all-purpose star, Kyle Singler, and with another high-flying Henderson; a coach in this game is fresh off coaching the Olympic team (though, of course, Coach K brought home the gold); and John Thompson will once again be sitting on the Georgetown bench. That he is a younger version of the Thompson that once sauntered along the Hoya sidelines is no matter—Coach K looks about the same as he did in 1989 anyway. But I digress.
This matchup will have an added incentive for both teams: conference bragging rights. The Big East has prevailed the past few seasons as the nation’s premier basketball conference, but the ACC is poised to reclaim its place atop the college basketball world. As Coach K asserted the other day, this is the best the league has been in several years, and many in the national media have begun to take notice. A win over a bigger, deeper Big East foe would certainly drive that point home.
But it won’t be easy. Wins over Georgetown never are.
"Georgetown is a tremendous barrier. We expected a killer game, and it was,” Ferry said after that 1989 win. “Lots of emotion, flying elbows, athleticism and heroism. Great games demand courage down the stretch. I saw plenty of it."
That’s the kind of effort you need to beat Georgetown. After all, as Coach K explained, “When you play Georgetown, you're not getting hot dogs and hamburgers. You're getting the best."
Here’s hoping Duke gets the best of Georgetown Saturday. The Cameron Crazies tenting in K-ville could use the excuse to start another bonfire: it’s freezing in Durham.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Duke University or the Duke University Department of Athletics.