UNLV clung to a two-point lead when point guard Greg Anthony stepped to the free-throw line with 12.6 left in the Rebels’ 1990 Sweet 16 match-up with 12th-seeded Ball State.
He missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Cardinals grabbed the rebound and called timeout.
Ball State had rallied from a double-digit deficit and was poised to derail the UNLV freight train.
The Cardinals’ final play went awry, and the Rebels escaped with a 69-67 win. It was the only time UNLV was really challenged as it rolled through the NCAA Tournament, culminating with a 103-73 thrashing of Duke, and won the first national championship in school history.
On Thursday, you won’t be tuning in to CBS or TNT or TBS or TruTV as four different sites go live with this year’s edition of March Madness. There will be no NCAA Tournament.
Sadly, there will also be no public reunion of the 1990 team in conjunction with the Final Four, which would have been played on the first weekend of April.
Those Rebels were big and fast and matched what was then the fastest-growing city in the country.
And Las Vegas loved them.
The decibel meter in the Thomas & Mack Center would surpass rock-concert levels as the Rebels built 20- and then 30-point leads against the likes of San Jose State and UC Irvine. And fans didn’t leave when games were in the bag; they wanted more.
It was the culmination of what Jerry Tarkanian had been building — a superpower in the desert. “Tark” had put UNLV on the map. UNLV meant basketball. It was no longer “Tumbleweed Tech.”
Tarkanian arrived in Las Vegas in 1973 and took the Rebels to their first Final Four in 1977, just seven years after UNLV transitioned to Division I.
Las Vegas was fast and loud and glitzy. So were Tarkanian’s teams.
There was another trip to the Final Four in 1987, and then, in 1989, Tarkanian brought in the best player in school history.
Larry Johnson, a transfer from a junior college in Odessa, Texas, was listed at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds. He carried maybe 4 percent body fat. His shoulders felt like they had been carved out of wood.
Johnson joined a team that included senior center David Butler, Anthony and defensive stopper Stacey Augmon, who were juniors, and sophomore guard Anderson Hunt.
The Rebels ran. They played a rugged defense. They scored from all over the court.
UNLV lost 78-70 at UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 26, 1990. The Rebels didn’t lose again for more than a year.
In the national title game rout of the Blue Devils, the Rebels shot 61 percent from the field and made 8 of 13 3-point shots (Duke was 1-for-11 from deep).
The 103 points and 30-point margin of victory still stand as records.
The 1990 team is often ranked among the all-time best in college basketball.
However, Tarkanian told me a couple years before he died that the 1991 team was his best ever. Those Rebels extended the team’s winning streak to 45 games before a shocking loss to Duke in the national semifinals.
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down all sports and claiming men’s and women’s NCAA championships in all spring sports, this March’s Madness has turned to sadness.
There will be no 12-over-5 upsets. We won’t know if Obi Toppin could lead Dayton to a Final Four. Would one of the battered Big Ten schools march to Atlanta? Would Mark Few and Gonzaga win a first national title? Could San Diego State bounce back from a couple late-season losses?
There also will also be no public celebration of Las Vegas’ team and a time when a growing city in the desert became the center of the sports world 30 years ago.
Last week: 0-2
Final season record: 36-35-1