On a full moon night in Indiana when strange things were happening all over the place, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team was hit square between the eyes and eliminated from the NCAA tournament - by Duke University, of all teams.
Duke, a school that had been to the Final Four what Sam Snead was to the U.S. Open, what Adlai Stevenson was to Dwight Eisenhower, what Denver was to the Super Bowl, did what it wasn't supposed to do. And so did UNLV, a team on a year-and-a-half 45-game winning streak that was purported to be either the first, second, or third best college team of all time.When Duke's Christian Laettner hit two free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining that gave the Devils the 79-77 edge that would prove to be the final score, the Duke cheering section - by now consuming approximately 42,000 of the 47,000 fans in attendance in the Hoosier Dome - let out a roar that could be heard as far away as Caesar's Palace.
Duke had been to the Final Four nine previous times in its history, and never figured out how to win. Its last trip had been a year ago, when it met primarily the same UNLV team in the final - and lost by 30 points.
The embarrassment of that loss was dissipated somewhat this season, since UNLV and its squad of NBA lottery picks in waiting cruised through its first 34 games beating opponents by an average of 29 points.
A lot of people thought Duke was crazy to even want to get back on this particular horse. They thought when Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "for us to win, UNLV is going to have to do its part," he meant the Rebs shouldn't show up.
But it was one of those nights, a night when the moon was out and eerie thing were happening.
That much was obvious even before Duke-UNLV took the floor.
When North Carolina and Kansas met in the opening semifinal game, not only did the team win that wasn't supposed to - Kansas, namely - but, also, the Mentor/Protege theory was debunked.
The Mentor/Protege theory held that whenever a wise old mentor - in this case North Carolina's Smith - meets a protege who has gone on to coach elsewhere - in this case Kansas Coach Roy Williams - the mentor wins. It's happened every time Bobby Knight has met a former coach in an NCAA tournament game; it happened when John Wooden met Denny Crum. It was supposed to happen this time.
But Smith's pregame statement that "Kansas does what we do better than we do it" came back to haunt him. And, speaking of being hit between the eyes, at the end of KU's 79-73 win, Smith had to stare at the Jayhawks' version of the Carolina four-corner offense. Now he knew what Dr. Frankenstein felt like. The coach was so beside himself he taunted the officials enough to get the heave-ho with 35 seconds remaining, the first time he'd been asked to leave an arena in 14 years.
Composed by the time he came to the postgame press conference, Smith allowed that his protege's team outhustled his team, and deserved to win. After that he wished the Jayhawks well and moved into the predicting business.
"I think they'll be playing Duke University Monday night," he said.
A lot of those in the room thought Smith, still lightheaded from the loss and the ejection, hadn't yet come to his senses."Psychologically, they have the advantage," the coach continued. "Vegas thinks it can't lose. Plus that crowd's going to be in it, and Duke played the tougher schedule."
By "that crowd," Smith was referring to the Duke fans who'd enjoyed themselves so much as the Tar Heels, their arch-rival neighbors eight miles away on Tobacco Road, died in front of them. He got a good look at the Duke diehards as he was escorted from the arena and they stood en masse and waved him goodbye.
Not a lot of people ran to the phones to say, "Stop the presses, Dean Smith says Duke is going to beat UNLV." For two reasons. One, nobody believed him. And Two, by now the Duke-UNLV game was underway, and the intrigue was to see how many minutes Blue Devil determination, and Blue Devil determination alone, could keep Duke in the game.
But then Duke hit its first five shots, and never really stopped doing odd and eerie things from there on out. The Blue Devils would keep scoring - their 51 percent from the field would prove to be the first time all season a Vegas opponent would do better than 47 percent - and, as the coach ordered, UNLV would do its part.
Things happened to the Rebels that hadn't happened to them since they stopped losing sometime last winter.
What kinds of things? Anderson Hunt, the 3-point king, threw up an air ball, for one thing. And two times baskets were taken away for offensive goaltending. And Larry Johnson lost his composure and got a technical foul that cost his team three points.
The most unusual, and costly, of all was Greg Anthony's fouling out. All year, Anthony had been to Vegas what Norman Schwarzkopf had been to Operation Deseret Storm, and when Anthony fouled out with 3:57 to play, he not only took away the Rebs' signal-caller, but the shot he'd just scored was also taken away. Instead of UNLV owning its first 5-point lead of the game, Duke had the ball, down by just three.
As Anthony walked to the bench, and the Duke fans waved their goodbyes, he knew how Dean Smith felt.
Moments later, he REALLY knew how Dean Smith felt.
The ball kept bouncing Duke's way - even after a Greg Koubek air ball, even after Thomas Hill missed from five feet and the laws of both mass and average said UNLV's Player of the Year Johnson would get the rebound instead of Laettner, who did, and who was fouled, and who went to the free throw line saying "90 percent, 90 percent," in his mind, which was his free throw percentage.
It was easy now that nobody was guarding him. As Laettner knocked down his free throws, UNLV was knocked down to earth, and out of the NCAA tournament. Incredible and amazing, but true. The Blue Devils had come to the Final Four and seen the enemy, and for once it wasn't them."