30 years ago, UNLV made an ever-lasting impact on college basketball with the largest margin of victory in an NCAA National Championship. The Rebels ran all over the Duke Blue Devils, 103-73, in McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado to claim the school’s first NCAA Championship. It was much more than winning a championship, regarded as one of the best college basketball teams in the country, UNLV made an impact on the game, in the community, and a cultural impact that is felt to this day.
There was a time in Las Vegas, not that long ago, where there were no professional sports. No NHL, no NFL, nothing, all they had to call their own where the Runnin’ Rebels. And for nearly 20 years, from the mid-1970’s through the early 1990’s, UNLV basketball was the best show on the Las Vegas strip. It is without question their best performance was they show they put on in the 1990 National Championship Game. It wasn’t just a win for UNLV, but the entire Las Vegas community.
Boosters at UNLV, in the early 1970’s felt that a successful basketball program would help raise the profile of the university, who was not even 20 years old yet. They made a run at Long Beach State coach Jerry Tarkanian, who made two Elite Eights while at Long Beach State. He had immediate success at UNLV, making the Sweet 16 twice and going to the Final Four in 1977. After a few down years UNLV came back into the national spotlight in 1982-1983 when they were ranked number one for two weeks. And they made another Final Four in 1987.
UNLV already had a great group of players, they were coming off an Elite Eight appearance, and were just a few years removed from a 37-win season and Final Four appearance. But everything changed for UNLV when Larry Johnson came to the desert. Johnson, who originally committed to SMU, went to a junior college in Texas for two seasons. After winning junior college player of the year, he transferred to UNLV, where he proved to be the key piece to a Rebel championship.
Road to the Championship
UNLV entered the preseason ranked #1 in the AP Poll. They started out 2-0 but loses to Kansas and #12 Oklahoma dropped them to 14th in the rankings. A six-game winning streak and wins against 16th Iowa and #11 Arizona moved UNLV back to #10. Despite a loss to New Mexico State, UNLV remained in the top-10 in the standings. They won 12 of its last 13 games, including three wins against ranked opponents put them at #2 in the rankings before the Big West Tournament.
Three wins in three days, by double-digits, gave UNLV another Big West Championship and a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their road to the Final Four was an unconventional one. They started off with a 30-point win over 16-seed Arkansas-Little Rock. Then, a 76-65 victory over 8-seed Ohio State to go to the Sweet 16.
UNLV’s toughest game, arguably, of the tournament came from 12-seeded Ball State. Scoring droughts late made the game a lot close, as the Rebels survived and won 69-67. There was a lot of emotion in the next game, as Loyola Marymount was playing for something bigger, they were playing for their late teammate Hank Gathers, who died on the floor in their conference tournament. In one of the highest scoring games ever, UNLV came out on top of the battle of the “run and guns” 131-101.
This marked the third time that UNLV would be in the Final Four. Never before had the Rebels won a Final Four game. Georgia Tech, and their “Lethal Weapon 3” of Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver. The Yellow Jackets gave UNLV a game and it got interesting when Larry Johnson fouled out. But, ultimately, as they have done all season, UNLV found a way to win and advanced to play for a national championship.
There was much more at stake than the national championship, this game signified a class of cultures. Duke represented what college basketball had been for many years. While UNLV was what the future of college basketball was going to be. And of course, there was the racial element, Duke being a predominantly white school and UNLV being in a diverse community with a predominantly African American team.
The Runnin’ Rebels blocked out all of the outside noise and came out of the gates strong. They jumped out to an early double-digit lead and never looked back, leading 47-35 at halftime. They piled on 56 points in the second half to win by 30. Anderson Hunt finished the game with 29 points on 75 percent shooting, earning him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
And as only as Vegas knows how to do, they held a massive celebration parade for the Rebels when they came back to Las Vegas. Fans lined the Las Vegas Strip and Fremont Street to welcome home its champions. And during the game against Duke, fans packed the Thomas and Mack Center for a watch party.
The Next Season and Afterwards
UNLV came into the 1990-1991 season as the favorite to repeat as national champions. Largely due to the fact that Anthony, Augmon, Hunt, and Johnson all returned. Johnson, along with Anthony and Augmon all came back for their senior years, could have gone pro, but at the time gave up a chance to go to the NBA (which would be there for himself and his teammates the next season) for a chance at another championship, something that would be unheard of today.
But the next season almost didn’t happen because UNLV faced punishment by the NCAA (who made Las Vegas its second headquarters while Tarkanian was there.) But the school and NCAA worked out a deal that would allow UNLV the chance to defend its national title (and serve its punishment the following year.)
It was clear that UNLV was not only better but a more dominate team than last season. UNLV was ranked number one at the in the preseason and they remained at the top through the entire season. They did not drop a game in the regular season and won all but one regular season game by double digits.
They had no problems in the Big West Tournament and cruised to another conference title, earning the number one overall seed in the west. Their dominance continued through the first two rounds of the tournament. They went to Indianapolis for the Final Four as the favorite. Awaiting them was their foe from last season, Duke. No one gave the Blue Devils a chance, but they learned form their mistakes from last year and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Ending UNLV’s perfect season and the era of dominance for Runnin’ Rebel basketball.
UNLV had to serve its one year penalty that kept them off national television and banned them from postseason play, they went 26-2 and 18-0 in the Big West. UNLV President Robert Maxson not only forced the resignation of Athletic Director Brad Rothermel (who helped UNLV win 33 conference championships in his time at the helm) but of Tarkanian as well. That is a whole other story in itself.
Even though UNLV has not been able to replicate its dominance from 30 years ago, so many people in Las Vegas will never forget the joy that team brought to the city. The Golden Knights made a Stanley Cup run a few years ago, but locals that have been here for a long time say nothing will compare to the championship UNLV won 30 years ago.
Their style of play, how they acted and dressed, and everything about them helped define a city and a culture. SO many people related to their rebellious spirit, being a part of UNLV was cool, so cool even Tupac got in on the Runnin’ Rebel red. A year later, the Fab Five at Michigan took the college basketball world by storm. They often talk about how much UNLV had an impact on how they played the game and about who they were.
Not since has the tournament been won by a team from a small conference. As the big conferences grew, the smaller conferences grew a big weaker, even though there have been some recent runs from some teams, the power conferences have dominated. So, this win was also for the small schools all around to take down the big conferences, UNLV fans were even chanting “Big West…Big West,” when they were winning handily.
The win was also special for Tarkanian, who had won after two pervious trips. They had a one-point loss to North Carolina in 1977 and a four-point loss to Indiana in 1987, where they were the favorite entering the Final Four. It cemented his legacy as one of the best coaches in college basketball. Even with the NCAA on his back, Tarkanian build a winner in Las Vegas, which he had turned into a college town during his reign, and probably nobody else could have done it as successfully as he did.
Las Vegas is a city that serves guest, whether it be hotels, restaurants, shows on the strip, it’s a hospitality town and for that era they had something to call their own. They weren’t just good, they were great, and there will probably not be another college basketball team like UNLV.