The five greatest Duke basketball tournament games to rewatch

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /
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Duke basketball
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski /

1. 1991 National Semifinal vs. UNLV

Let me explain here. This one’s about context, importance, and difficulty of the win itself. The Blue Devils showed the most heart and fight of any game I’ve ever had the privilege of watching them play.

Their opponent for the 1991 Final Four battle that night was none other than the famed Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. If you haven’t ever seen that team play, you’re selling yourself extremely short. They were an absolute machine, laying waste to everyone and everything in their path.

The Rebels were undefeated that season and in the midst of a 45-game winning streak dating back to the previous season. During the course of that streak, they dealt Duke the most soul-crushing defeat I’ve ever witnessed in the 1990 National Championship Game. Following the 103-73 dismantling, Duke basketball players were reportedly crying in the locker room, and many wondered if the program would ever recover and win a banner.

The 1991 revenge game against UNLV was the most important game in Duke basketball history, not to mention a classic. Duke hung tough, went into halftime only down two, and continued that solid play in the second half.

UNLV was led by an amazing core of Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony (yeah, that’s Cole Anthony‘s dad, funny how history repeats itself), Larry Johnson (purple dude from Space Jam), and Stacey Augmon. They were cultural icons and in many ways just as responsible as Michigan’s “Fab Five” for bringing hip-hop culture and basketball together.

Both teams had heroic performances as Bobby Hurley showed the fire and stone-cold shooting that turned him into a Duke basketball legend. UNLV guards Anthony and Hunt were both banged up but provided gutty showings. Anthony fouled out with 3:51 remaining, giving the Rebels their first real dose of fear in two years.

Duke went on a 6-0 run and pulled ahead, 77-76, and after Larry Johnson hit a free throw to tie the game, Christian Laettner grabbed a Thomas Hill miss and got fouled with 12.7 seconds left. Laettner calmly knocked down the pair of freebies, and UNLV’s last-second heave missed, sending Duke to the title game and what would eventually become the program’s first NCAA Championship.

Without this game, the 1992 Kentucky game may have never happened. Duke would have either been too shell-shocked from two straight chokes to UNLV or too focused to let the scrappy 1992 Wildcats team hang around them. Either way, it marked the beginning of the Duke basketball dynasty and introduced Duke as the premier program in college basketball.

And just like the spring season that begins life on earth anew, the 1991 team sprang anew a lifelong obsession for this and so many other Duke basketball fans.

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