Still riding the high from slaying UNLV in Saturday's semifinals, Duke won its first college basketball national championship Monday night with a 72-65 win over Kansas University. Forty-eight hours after ridding the tournament of the Runnin' Rebels, the Blue Devils exorcised another demon - this time themselves.
After nine trips in history to the Final Four, and five visits to the final game, the private school from Durham, N.C., finally got it right. Every other time the school had gotten this far, it had looked a lot like the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. For an academic school, Duke did lousy at finals. At seeing things through to a successful finish, it had as much success as one of its alums, Richard Nixon.But that was then and a sold-out (47,100) Hoosier Dome was now; and in the flush of one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history - Saturday's 79-77 win over UNLV - Duke didn't act at all like its old self.
As the Blue Devils led from wire to wire, it became evident Kansas coach Roy Williams knew what he was talking about when, after being asked if he was relieved to be playing Duke instead of UNLV in the final, he said, "Right . . . we were supposed to be playing the best team of all time. Now we get to play the team that beat them."
If Duke didn't have momentum, who did? There had been some thought that after expending so much energy on Saturday, the Devils might be susceptible to a letdown, both physically and emotionally. But, as it turned out, UNLV had a hand in winning the '91 championship after all.
It would have been appropriate for Duke to thank the UNLV players as soon as they finished cutting down the nets. Except nobody from Vegas had hung around Indianapolis. After Saturday's loss, the Vegas team's charter plane got out of the airport as soon as possible - Monday morning, as it turned out, because of heavy Easter air traffic. Even before that, a few UNLV players - Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, in particular - left on their own. If Duke was going to go on and win the title, the Rebs wanted to be as far away from the hugs as possible.
Even the coldest heart in Vegas had to feel a warm twinge for Duke, though, as it got an 85-year monkey off its back. When you take basketball as seriously as Duke takes basketball, when you've had dozens of All-Americans and you've had winning teams almost every year since Wilson was president, it's not easy to come back to Durham every season and talk about the big one that got away.
Just how serious does Duke take basketball? This is a school where the studentbody moves into tents outside Cameron Stadium two days before home games, just to get decent seats. In Durham, the term "Cameron Crazy" is a compliment. No one at Duke can remember the last time a game wasn't sold out.
You even got the impresion Kansas wasn't all that depressed with the outcome.
There were even North Carolina fans - those few who hadn't scalped their tickets after losing to Kansas Saturday - who stood up and applauded for the school from eight miles down Tobacco Road that they'd normally wish nothing upon but misery and misfortune.
The funny thing was, it wasn't Duke's best team in 85 years. This team had just two starters back from the team that got blown out in last year's final - by Vegas - by 30 points. This team started a freshman at forward and had all of one senior who played much. This team didn't even win the ACC regular-season title, or the postseason tournament title, either. This team was ranked a mere 15th in the final regular season national polls.
It was almost as if Duke, '91, was trying to dodge the NCAAs. Who needed them?
But then the Devils got rolling in March, and one win led to another, and when one rather embarrassing chapter of the school's basketball past was vanquished in the reversal win over UNLV, it was just a matter of riding that wave on in to the shore. How did the Dodgers feel when they finally beat the Yankees? How did the Lakers feel when they finally beat the Celtics? How did John Wayne feel when he finally won the Oscar? Ask the other Duke, they've now got the general idea.