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Mike Lopresti | | March 3, 2015

1990 NCAA tournament remains one for the ages

High Five: Best 1990 NCAA tournament moments

It was the March that came with Grade-A Madness. The best NCAA tournament ever, from start to finish. Or at least the case can be made.

No. 9 California 65, No. 8 Indiana 63
No. 5 Clemson 79, No. 4 La Salle 75
No. 7 UCLA 71, No. 2 Kansas 70
No. 3 Duke 79, No. 1 Connecticut 78 (OT)
No. 12 Dayton 88, No. 5 Illinois 86
No. 10 Texas 100, No. 7 Georgia 88
No. 8 North Carolina 79, No. 1 Oklahoma 77
No. 6 Xavier 74, No. 3 Georgetown 71
No. 10 Texas 73, No. 2 Purdue 72
No. 10 Texas 102, No. 6 Xavier 89
No. 9 UC Santa Barbara 70, No. 8 Houston 66
No. 14 Northern Iowa 74, No. 3 Missouri 71
No. 12 Ball State 54, No. 5 Oregon State 53
No. 11 Loyola Marymount 111, No. 6 New Mexico St. 92
No. 12 Ball State 62, No. 4 Louisville 60
No. 11 Loyola Marymount 149, No. 3 Michigan 115
No. 7 Alabama 77, No. 2 Arizona 55
No. 11 Loyola Marymount 62, No. 7 Alabama 60

Twenty-five years ago, the 1990 tournament gave us seven genuine buzzer beaters, five overtime games, seven one-point finishes, and 23 games decided by a single possession. It gave us 10 major upsets – if the measure is the winner being seeded at least five spots lower than the loser.

It gave us a No. 16 seed taking a No. 1 into overtime. A clock mistake that might have cost a renowned coach his last trip to the Final Four. A player shooting free throws with the wrong hand, to honor a teammate he had just helped bury. A team scoring 115 points – and losing by 34.

It gave us a tour de force of offense, in an age of scoring. The average winning score from the Elite Eight on was 97.3. Georgia Tech, destined for the Final Four, averaged 88.5 points a game that season. In 2015, those Yellow Jackets would be No. 1 in the nation by more than four points. In 1990, they were 18th.

And in the end, it gave us an historic rout, by a mighty champion whose title transcended the game, and spread into the differences of our society at large. UNLV 103, Duke 73. A quarter-century later, the score still astounds.

One tournament did all that? Yes.

So let’s relive 1990 with some who were there, and an oral history of possibly the greatest NCAA tournament ever played.

Say hello to Popeye

The tournament was not two hours old when No. 1 seed Michigan State found itself in overtime with No. 16 Murray State, led by the irrepressible Popeye Jones, who would take half his team’s 72 shots and become an instant national darling. Jones’ teammate, Greg Coble, hit a 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer to tie the game, but the Spartans eventually survived 75-71. No. 1 seeds are 120-0 against No. 16s, and this still remains the only overtime.

Jones finished with 37 points, scoring inside and out, as a country’s TV watchers grabbed their remotes and began to flock to his side, while Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote ran out of ideas how to stop him. But he missed a shot that would have pulled the Racers even again late in overtime.

• Jones now, about then ...

“I remember the shot I missed more than any other shot. I remember exactly what the play was -- I came down the lane and got it at about the right block and I tried to shoot a little right-hand jump hook. Of my whole college career, that shot stays with me more than anything.

“After the game, I didn’t really know what I did. I just knew we lost, I didn’t really care about 37 points and 11 rebounds. But when I got back to campus, and went home, I realized … that game kind of put me on the map. Everybody knew the name, Popeye Jones, after that game.’’

Also in the first round: Ohio State freshman Alex Davis hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left to force overtime with Providence, and the Buckeyes won 84-83. … No. 14 seed Northern Iowa upset No. 3 Missouri. … Two No. 5 seeds fell to No. 12s, Illinois by two points against Dayton, and Oregon State 54-53 to Ball State, when Cardinal Paris McCurdy hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to tie and was fouled. His free throw at 0:00 won it.

A magical, mournful run

Eleventh-ranked Loyola Marymount blew away No. 6 seed New Mexico State on the second day of the tournament 111-92. The news was not the number of points; Paul Westhead’s fire-away offense averaged 122.4 a game that season. It was the left-handed free throw taken by right-handed Loyola’s Bo Kimble.

That was a poignant tribute to teammate and fellow senior star Hank Gathers, who had struggled so to improve his free-throw shooting, he tried them with his left hand. Gathers collapsed and died of a heart ailment during the conference tournament. Both Philadelphia products, Kimble and Gathers had gone to Marymount and together led the Lions onto the national radar screen. They had planned on one last storybook NCAA tournament run.

Suddenly, Kimble was alone, to help his stricken teammates. Each NCAA tournament game, Kimble would take his first free throw left-handed, and the Lions would try to express their grief with points. There were widespread gasps in the second round, as Marymount burned through the record books, overwhelming defending national champion Michigan 149-115 in the highest-scoring tournament game ever played. There were 174 shots taken, six players scored at least 20 points, Marymount hit 21 3-pointers, and scored 84 points in the second half. March had never seen anything like it.

• Michigan’s Terry Mills now, about then ...

“It was just unbelievable, the way they wanted to push the ball. They didn’t really care if you scored -- just get the ball out of the net and let’s go to the other end. At some point in time you allow your ego to get in the way. That’s the way you played growing up, so to speak, like a playground kind of setting. We just said, ‘OK, if they want to play the way, we’ll play that way.’ And it didn’t work out for us.

“I think they were playing for something special. When a team gets on a mission like that, you really don’t want to get in the way. You could put any team out in the world that day they played us, and I don’t think there is any team that could have beat them.’’

Also in the second round: Close scores were the routine. Of the 16 second-round games, 12 were decided by four points or less. In the same afternoon session at Austin, Dayton lost with four seconds left on Todd Day’s follow-up basket for Arkansas, and No. 1 seed Oklahoma was beaten at the buzzer by Rick Fox’s basket for North Carolina.

Alabama tried to slow down the Loyola Marymount parade in the Sweet 16, but the Lions escaped 62-60. Their long ride ended in the Elite Eight against a team that could race up and down even better than they. UNLV won 131-101. Kimble did not have any free throws against Alabama, but went 3-for-3 in his left-handed attempts in the other games. Loyola Marymount has not been back to the NCAA tournament since.

• Kimble now, about then ...

“Hank and I were looking forward to going to the NBA and graduating on time and for life to just kind of go on. It was at age 23, not a normal situation to be dealing with.

“All of our team just came together and turned tragedy into something positive to be proud of. It was bitter and sweet, but I remember all the good things. I look back at the free throw, none of those shots were supposed to go in. I wanted them to go in, but it wasn’t really important at all. It was really about celebrating Hank’s memory and life.

“We had a different purpose. That purpose was different than what Michigan’s purpose was. Michigan probably thought they could just come on the court, they’re defending champions, and they’re just going to walk over us without Hank. They probably don’t know what hit them. My pain and my teammates’ pain was put right on the court. I felt I had the energy of two people. I could jump higher and run faster. Basketball was like therapy to us, it was a release, and we released it on Michigan.

“I say this as humbly as I can say it. If Hank Gathers were alive, I can guarantee you we would have won the national championship, with no disrespect to UNLV.

“I have not visited Hank’s grave. I’ve never been there. In the first 15 or 20 years, every time I thought about going, it was too overwhelming for me. Now I’m in a place I can go, so I will make time before the anniversary of his death. In 2015, I guarantee I will go. It just took this much time to go there.’’

The late shot

Michigan State led 75-73 in the final seconds of the Sweet 16 game, when Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson came roaring down the court and put up a last chance. Swish. Officials originally called it a 3-pointer and a Yellow Jacket victory, but conferred and changed it to a two, which meant overtime.

The mistake they didn’t catch, replays suggested, was that the basket should not have counted at all. Time appeared to have run out an instant before Anderson released his shot. No matter, Georgia Tech won 81-80 in overtime and went on to the Final Four. Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote was left to deal with his second galling clock controversy loss, the Spartans having been beaten by Final Four-bound Kansas in the infamous 1986 Sweet 16 overtime game in Kansas City, where it appeared the Jayhawks were given extra seconds to rally. Heathcote never got back to the Final Four after winning the 1979 title with Magic Johnson, but obviously could have.

• Heathcote now, about then ...

“They couldn’t go back to the monitor then. They call that the Michigan State change; now they have the monitor and the lights on the backboard and all that. I felt like we kind of got cheated out of that game. I used to kid [Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins] that I was afraid to turn my back on him. When I saw him, I’d grab for my wallet. But it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.

“I felt like we played good enough to win, but I’m sure their position would be, you had a chance to win in overtime and you didn’t. In all my coaching career I always looked at the next game, not the last game, so I didn’t dwell on that game. But I didn’t forget it, either.’’

Also in the Sweet 16 round: Connecticut blew a 19-point lead in the second half to trail Clemson by one point with one second left, but that’s when Tate George took a full-court pass in the corner, and hit a jumper to save the Huskies. Then there was the stunning score from Oakland.

The upset that nearly was

The UNLV march to the championship was one of utter domination. The Rebels outscored five opponents by an average of 22 points, putting up 100.4 points a game. Unstoppable. But didn’t they play six teams?

Well, about that other one. In the Sweet 16, all claims of UNLV power and invulnerability were temporarily put on hold, by a team from some place called Ball State. The Rebels were stifled on offense, crushed 51-36 in rebounding, and had been unable to faze the Cardinals in the least. A thunderous dunk in UNLV’s faces by Ball State’s 6-3 Chandler Thompson had let the Rebels know what they were up against.

It went to the final seconds, the Cardinals down 69-67 with a chance to tie or win, but their last play went awry and UNLV had slipped by, having been held nearly 32 points under their tournament scoring average.

• Thompson now, about then ...

“That Monday, my daughter was born. They induced labor so I wouldn’t miss her being born when we played UNLV.

“Our mindset was, if you can make UNLV play a half-court game, you shut down 60 to 70 percent of their offense. They were called the Runnin’ Rebels for a reason. We had guys like Paris McCurdy and Curtis Kidd, fifth-year seniors. For UNLV to come in and intimidate them, it wasn’t happening. We had guys that had been in the trenches.

“It was a bittersweet situation. We felt like if we could have gotten by Vegas, who was going to stop us? We felt like if we had gotten past them, we were going to the Final Four. They blew out everybody else. We woke up UNLV to make them a better team than what they were. [UNLV guard] Greg Anthony even walked around wearing a Ball State hat at the Final Four, to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. He showed respect to the Ball State program wearing that hat.’’

Laettner's miracle (No, not that one ...)

Duke was on the brink of losing in the Elite Eight, behind with only a few seconds left. The final pass went to Christian Laettner, who quickly took his shot and … well, you’ve seen what happened next.

Or maybe you haven’t. Laettner’s buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky in 1992 is celebrated as the game’s all-time dramatic moment, replayed a gazillion times each spring. So a little lost in the shuffle is 1990, which was almost as good. After an overtime classic of 16 ties and 16 lead changes, it had come to this:

Connecticut led Duke 78-77 in the final seconds when the Huskies’ Tate George stepped in front of a Bobby Hurley pass for a game-sealing interception. Since George had beaten Clemson with a last-second jumper two days before, he would be the king of all Connecticut. Except, he bobbled the ball out of bounds. With 2.6 seconds left, Duke had one more chance.

As Laettner prepared to inbound the pass, Mike Krzyzewski noticed he wasn’t be guarded, so he yelled out “Special!’’ Which meant the pass was supposed to be immediately be returned to Laettner for the shot, which Brian Davis did. Laettner took care of the rest, as he would two years later so unforgettably against Kentucky,

The Blue Devils went on to their fourth Final Four in five years. It would take Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun nine more seasons to finally get to his first one.

• Calhoun now, about then ...

“You live by the sword, you die by the sword. On that Thursday night, we were down with one second to go, and we throw a full length pass and we make the shot. Forty-eight hours later, we’re up by one. The kid drops the ball. No big deal. But then, son of a gun. I kind of saw it go in, but what I really saw were the reactions.

“At the time, it was only my fourth year at UConn. It was a magical season. They still call it the dream season at UConn because it was the first time we had won 30 games. Later, we got beat in other final eights and all of a sudden [the Final Four] got farther and farther away. I didn’t think initially about it then, but later on I realized how difficult it is to get there. I probably didn’t watch that shot for the next five or six years. Why watch it? I felt it.’’

Lethal Weapon 3

Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver, Dennis Scott. That’s all basically anyone needed to know about Georgia Tech in 1990. The three big scorers with the cool nickname shot the Yellow Jackets past one moment of truth after another.

They came from 19 points down to edge LSU and Shaquille O’Neal 94-91, slipped past No. 1 seed Michigan State in the controversial overtime, then advanced to the Final Four with a 93-91 win against Minnesota. The three scored 89 of Georgia Tech’s 93 points in that one.

At the Final Four, they led UNLV 53-46 at halftime, and were outgunning the Rebels. But Anderson ran into foul trouble and UNLV turned up the defense, and that was that. The Yellow Jackets lost 90-81, but few teams had been as entertaining.

• Cremins now, about then ...

“We had to play LSU. They had Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts and I was intimidated. They were beating up on us early, and I said to myself, ‘Oh crap, these guys are so big, we’re in trouble.’ But then Dennis Scott got hot and Kenny got going.

“The Michigan State game was a wild game. I watched [the Anderson shot] 25 times, and I could go either way. Jud was going nuts. The thing people forget is we still had to win in overtime, which we did.

“My father had died after Christmas. My parents were Irish immigrants and they always followed the games. I would have taken them to the Final Four.

“I remember how well we played the first half against UNLV. Kenny Anderson picked up his fourth foul and I took him out of the game. To this day, he’s still mad at me for taking him out. Later that night, I was sleeping and somebody was knocking at the door, and I got up and it’s Dennis Scott. He says, ‘Coach, I think I’m leaving.’ I said, ‘No Dennis, we’re leaving in the morning.’ He said, ‘No, I mean I’m going to the pros.’

“At the time, the Final Four didn’t mean as much as it meant later on. Now when I look back at everything and I think of all the great coaches who never got to the Final Four, I feel fortunate. Very fortunate. It’s tough to get there. You have to be lucky, which we were.’’

The answer

The national semifinals had been all about scoring, UNLV rallying past Georgia Tech 90-81 and Duke surviving Arkansas’ heat 97-83. All that was left in a remarkable month was a championship game between good and evil. At least, that’s what many tried to make it.

Duke, the buttoned-up, everything-by-the-book machine of Mike Krzyzewski. UNLV, the program with its shirts pulled out, its music loud and its past a little rough. The creation of Jerry Tarkanian, in constant conflict with the NCAA.

Maybe a lot of what was said wasn’t fair or true, but that was the buzz, and the Rebels heard every word, adding each adjective to the Nevada-sized chip they would carry on their shoulders into the game. They had an answer in mind.

Nobody has ever done what they did in a championship game. Broke 100, won by 30. It was a complete dismantling of a vaunted opponent -- Duke had 26 field goals and 23 turnovers -- and an unflinching stick-that-in-your ear to all those who had thrown bricks at them.

• Hurley now, about then ...

“Arkansas, I think, had knocked a few miles per hour off our fastball. That was hard game to play, with their '40 Minutes of Hell' [defense]. They pressured us the whole game. And then to have to come back two nights later and play a team as dominant as [the Rebels] were.

“It was frustrating. We turned the ball over and didn’t get back on defense the way we normally did. Everything spiraled and snowballed on us. I just saw guys running by me all night, dunking the ball. I felt humiliated just being out there.

“It knocked me back and it took me weeks to get over, just feeling sorry for myself, feeling humiliated, feeling like I had let down a lot of people. Once I was over that, I just went about my business of getting better.

“I had never watched that game until this year with my team. I found about five minutes of all the dunks and all the stuff that was going on, and I wanted my team to see you could have your heart broken. Here’s me getting my heart broken and humiliated. And then I showed them the year after, and what happened next time.’’

Yes, Duke and UNLV would meet again in the 1991 Final Four.

The tournament goes on, and fates change. Drama and plot twists are what makes March special. It was never more special than 1990.

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