Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30, 1991: Laettner, part 2

INDIANAPOLIS - Two college players, two different clutch situations, two different reactions.

After getting blown away in the national championship game by UNLV the previous season, Duke came back the next year determined to take the one extra step that had thus far eluded the school in its illustrious basketball history. Meanwhile, UNLV was looking for improvement of its own, and entered this year's semifinal matchup with Duke undefeated, looking to become college basketball's first unbeaten champion since 1976.

Unlike the previous year's matchup, this one was close throughout. There were 17 ties and 25 lead changes as each team threw its best punches at the other. The game was tied 77-77 late when Duke had the ball late. Then, fate intervened and gave two different players a chance to be the hero, one for each team.

First, Christian Laettner. Laettner had already established himself as a clutch college player the year before, and in the 1990-91 season further worked to establish himself as the best college player in the country. He was well on his way to being named the Final Four's most outstanding player when he was fouled after an offensive rebound with 12.7 seconds to go.

During a timeout before the free throws, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski looked Laettner in the eye and asked "you got 'em?" Laettner responded, simply, "I got 'em." Krzyzewski then made plans for Duke's final defensive possession, knowing full well the Blue Devils would be ahead by two in just a few moments.

Laettner hit the two free throws, just like everybody expected him to. Duke was ahead 79-77, and UNLV took the ball upcourt. In their huddle during the same timeout, coach Jerry Tarkanian called for a play where either forward Larry Johnson or guard Anderson Hunt would take the final shot. As it turned out, Johnson was open beyond the 3-point line and got the ball with no Duke player anywhere near him.

Johnson pump-faked ... and froze. He didn't shoot. Instead, he passed off to Hunt, who took a tougher 3-point attempt with a hand in his face that fell off the rim. By the time the rebound was tracked down, the buzzer had sounded and the UNLV's unbeated run was over.

In the face of a shot to win the game, Johnson froze. Sure, he wasn't a great 3-point shooter, but he was wide open, and his team ran the play for him. He just didn't want the shot. Laettner, meanwhile, wanted the ball in clutch situations, something he proved throughout his college career. He thrived on the pressure.

And so UNLV failed in its bid to be an undefeated champion, while Duke moved on to the national championship game, this time succeeding in winning the school's first national title.

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