‘They need to go to the NBA’: UNLV’s 45-game win streak was historic, and its end was shocking

  • ESPN Insider college basketball contributor
  • First began covering college hoops in 2004
  • Has written for Basketball Prospectus and the Wall Street Journal

IT WAS TOUTED as the game of the year in college basketball, and it would tip at 11:20 in the morning local time on a Sunday in February. Fayetteville, Arkansas area churches moved up their services to accommodate the 1 vs. 2 showdown. Former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton had by this time become a vocal fan of the No. 1 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels during this 1990-91 season, and he was afforded a special seat for the contest.

Students at Arkansas — ranked No. 2 in the nation and standing at 22-1 behind stars Oliver Miller and Todd Day — had been camping out in front of Fayettevillle’s Barnhill Arena for a full week in advance of the game, and Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian sought to put the tent city to good use for his own team. Instead of using the traditional players’ entrance to the arena, Tarkanian had the UNLV bus pull up to Barnhill’s main gate on game day.

“We heard some of the worst comments,” Tarkanian would recall in 2009. “They were brutal,” he said, and that was just what he expected and wanted. “In the locker room, my guys were talking about how they were gonna kill these (bleeps).”

The Rebels negated coach Nolan Richardson’s vaunted “40 minutes of hell” full-court press by repeatedly firing outlet passes to a streaking Anderson Hunt for still another fast-break dunk. UNLV had a 23-point lead late in the second half when Tarkanian pulled his starters, and a 3 at the buzzer for the Razorbacks cut the final margin to 112-105. After the game, Miller said simply of UNLV, “They need to go to the NBA.”

The game was referred to in basketball circles afterward as “40 minutes of layups.”

UNLV would eventually reach the national semifinal 30 years ago this weekend having won 45 straight games over a period of 13 months. No team has won 40 games or more in a row in the 30 years since.

Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, George Ackles and their teammates would enter the 1991 Final Four having trailed their opponents for a total of just one minute and 20 seconds in any second half all season.

VICTORY NO. 1 in what would become the fourth-longest win streak in the history of D-I men’s basketball was recorded at Utah State on March 1, 1990. While no one could have known of the impending streak, the game did attract national attention for a very different reason.

USU’s head coach, Kohn Smith, had broken a taboo of his profession in early 1989 when he went on the record as being “happy” that Tarkanian had lost a road game at Louisville by 18 points. “I’m not real big on their whole operation,” the first-year head coach had said of UNLV. He went on to express his view that the Rebels, in effect, played by a different set of rules and that the UNLV program should be investigated from top to bottom, up to and including the players’ grades, class attendance, cars and summer jobs.

When the two teams met in Las Vegas in February of 1990, a brawl erupted after UNLV’s Chris Jeter head-butted one Utah State player and punched another. In advance of the rematch on the Aggies’ home floor, Utah State took out a full-page ad in the Logan Herald-Journal. “Let’s show UNLV fans and players that we at Utah State University are a class act,” USU’s president and athletic director jointly urged in the ad.

UNLV defeated the Aggies 84-82 thanks in part to two technical fouls called on the Utah State crowd. The Rebels sank three resulting free throws, and a win streak was born even as trouble loomed off the court. Tarkanian’s program was indeed under scrutiny, and speculation had already begun on where his star players would go if UNLV were placed on probation by the NCAA.

ESPN reported in January of 1990 that Augmon would reunite with his 1988 Olympic Team coach, John Thompson, and transfer to Georgetown if the Rebels were ineligible to play in the 1991 postseason. As for Johnson, it was widely assumed that he would enter the 1990 NBA draft and quite possibly be taken as the first overall pick.

Tarkanian’s group easily captured the Big West’s automatic bid and, at 29-5, was given the top seed in the West region. The Rebels eked out a two-point win against surprising No. 12 seed Ball State in a regional semifinal and then faced Loyola Marymount in the Elite Eight in Oakland. The Lions were making a storybook tournament run in the wake of the tragic death of Hank Gathers, but UNLV ended that story with an easy 131-101 victory.

After defeating Dennis Scott and Georgia Tech 90-81 at the Final Four in Denver, the Rebels would face Duke for the national championship. The Blue Devils were playing in their fourth Final Four in five years, but Mike Krzyzewski was yet to win it all and his team had a reputation as, in the Chicago Tribune‘s phrasing, “the familiar bridesmaids.” When Krzyzewski was asked about that image at the Sunday press conference, he replied, “It really doesn’t bother me.”

Coach K’s team stayed reasonably close for the game’s first 24 minutes before the roof fell in on them. Within the span of just 2:43, Hunt scored 12 points and UNLV uncorked an 18-0 run on its way to a 103-73 win. Hunt totaled 29 points for the game and was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. To this day, the Rebels are the only team to top 100 points in the title game, and the win over Duke still stands as the largest margin of victory ever recorded in a championship final.

“I think it’s the best a team has ever played against me,” Krzyzewski said afterward. “I’m in awe.”

A LITTLE MORE than three months after the title game, the NCAA ruled that UNLV was indeed ineligible for the 1991 postseason due to violations dating back to 1977. Two of the program’s prize recruits, Ed O’Bannon and Shon Tarver, promptly withdrew their verbal commitments to Tarkanian and enrolled at UCLA instead.

The timing of the NCAA’s ruling left Johnson and Augmon in a difficult spot because by then the 1990 NBA draft had already taken place. The two stars could have transferred and received immediate eligibility, but both elected to remain in Vegas. As it happened, that loyalty would be rewarded by the least likely entity of all, the NCAA itself.

On November 29, 1990, the Committee on Infractions announced that, after hearing UNLV’s appeal, it was giving the program two options. Either Tarkanian could serve a personal suspension from coaching during the 1991 tournament and watch his team from afar before facing a postseason ban for both himself and the Rebels in 1992, or UNLV could play in the 1991 postseason in exchange for a ban on all live TV appearances and on any postseason play for the 1991-92 season.

UNLV chose the second alternative, and other programs that were or recently had been placed on probation by the NCAA were outraged. “I sure wish they’d given us a multiple-choice penalty,” third-year Kansas coach Roy Williams said of the NCAA. The Jayhawks had been unable to defend their 1988 national title in Williams’ first season due to NCAA penalties. Former KU player Milt Newton called the NCAA’s decision on UNLV “gutless and spineless.”

Now free to defend its title, UNLV was expected to confront its first real test in December when it played Steve Smith and Michigan State at the two-year-old Palace of Auburn Hills. Instead, the Rebels overcame a one-point deficit midway through the second half and won going away, 95-75. Johnson rang up 35 points and was termed “a man among boys” by MSU head coach Jud Heathcote. “I was pleased we hung in there as long as we did,” Heathcote said afterward.

UNLV reeled off its next 16 wins by an average score of 103-71 before encountering what experts forecasted to be an actual challenge, a true road game at Arkansas. It wasn’t.

Despite its image as a team that relied mainly on Johnson in the paint, UNLV was significantly more perimeter-oriented than D-I as a whole in 1990-91. The Runnin’ Rebels launched 28% of their attempts from beyond the arc, while the corresponding figure for the nation as a whole was just 23%. With its combination of perimeter shooting and interior mastery, UNLV appeared to be a complete and possibly even invulnerable team.

The Rebels earned their second consecutive West region No. 1 seed and arrived at the 1991 round of 32 in Tucson, Arizona, with a 31-0 record. Awaiting them was the rare opponent that actually had better size than the Rebels. Dikembe Mutombo was 7-foot-2, Alonzo Mourning was 6-foot-10 and Georgetown slowed the pace of the game down to a crawl. It almost worked. The Hoyas pulled to within four before falling 62-54. When writers praised his team’s valiant effort after the game, John Thompson was having none of it: “We’re not in the moral victory business at Georgetown.”

Wins over Utah and Seton Hall at the Kingdome in Seattle carried the Rebels to the national semifinals in Indianapolis and a rematch with Duke. UNLV had now won 45 games in a row, and Tarkanian’s men — which had won its games by an average of 27 points — were being compared to the undefeated Indiana Hoosiers of 1976. Veterans from that IU roster fielded a high volume of calls from the press that week. Quinn Buckner, for one, had already stated his belief that UNLV was actually superior to his own team.

Bob Knight wasn’t going to go that far, but he did predict that the Rebels would beat the team coached by his own onetime player at Army and assistant at Indiana, Krzyzewski. Asked at the Final Four press conference about his mentor’s comments, Krzyzewski laughed it off. “I’ve found out that it’s smart never to argue with him,” he said, “and I suppose if I were [Knight] I would pick UNLV to win, too.”

THIS WAS THE the first Final Four called by Jim Nantz for CBS, and his future broadcast partner, Grant Hill, was a freshman for the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski had said goodbye to Phil Henderson and Alaa Abdelnaby from the previous year’s team, but he still had Christian Laettner, Thomas Hill, Bobby Hurley, Billy McCaffery and Brian Davis. Duke was 30-7 and had won the Midwest region as the No. 2 seed.

The Blue Devils opened the game against UNLV by making their first five shots and taking a 15-8 lead. After the first TV timeout, Tarkanian switched his defense from man-to-man to the infamous “amoeba” zone. Things were already more competitive than expected, a fact captured nicely on the telecast by James Brown. As the sideline reporter assigned to the Duke bench, Brown related to Nantz and Billy Packer that “Coach K wanted his team to get out to a fast start and not allowing his guys a chance to get scared.”

Neither team looked the least bit scared. The game stayed close for the duration, and both teams showcased skills that had carried them this far. Laettner, Davis and Grant Hill were able to find gaps in UNLV’s interior defense and, remarkably, the Blue Devils shot 52% on their 2s as Laettner rang up 28 points. At the other end of the floor, however, Duke was overwhelmed on its defensive glass as the Rebels pulled down half of their missed shots and Johnson personally recorded eight offensive boards. In addition, Hunt was sensational from both sides of the arc and would lead all scorers with 29 points.

In the buildup to UNLV’s title defense, countless features had been written on how to beat the Rebels. One 34-year-old coach in particular had made what turned out to be a strikingly prophetic observation to Sports Illustrated. Though his team had gone 0-3 against the Rebels that season, Long Beach State head coach Seth Greenberg said Tarkanian’s “biggest vulnerability is if Greg [Anthony] gets in foul trouble.” Greenberg added that “Johnson may be the best player in the country, but Anthony is their key.”

True to Greenberg’s word, Anthony fouled out when he was called for a charge on Davis with 3:51 remaining in the game. The foul would go down in UNLV lore as the questionable call that cost the team a championship. It was, at a minimum, a pivotal turning point. Anthony’s shot on the play went in the basket, and if it had counted the Rebels would have had a 76-71 lead. Instead, the Rebels played without their point guard and managed just three points over their final four possessions.

Laettner made two free throws with 12.7 seconds left, and Duke won 79-77 when Hunt’s contested 3 from 25 feet missed long just before time expired. Krzyzewski’s team would go on to defeat Kansas in the championship game and earn Duke its first national title.

One of the few figures associated with that UNLV team who’s willing to revisit the subject of 1991 in 2021 is Jerry Koloskie, who then served as athletic trainer for the Rebels before later becoming the school’s senior associate athletic director. (editor’s note: ESPN reached out to multiple starters from that team as well as to one member of the coaching staff. All either failed to respond to numerous messages or affirmatively declined to be interviewed. Tarkanian died in 2015). “We just never got there,” Koloskie says now of the Duke game. “Even at halftime, you’re thinking we’re going to go out and do what we usually do, and it just never happened.”

Koloskie wholeheartedly believes the game’s outcome turned on Anderson fouling out. He still can’t bring himself to click on the link provided by the NCAA’s March Madness channel on YouTube. “I’ve never watched the game in 30 years,” he says.

On that night 30 years ago, Anthony was asked after the game to put into words what had just taken place. “We were basically outplayed,” he said, “but I still think we’re part of history.”

“We’re the greatest team to have not won a national championship.”

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