Rebels Without A Pause

by March 09, 2012

That left Moses Scurry coming off the bench. Despite his omnipresent smile, Scurry was a bulky 6-7 Brooklyn kid who intimidated opponents with nasty shoulders and quick hands. He spelled either Butler, Johnson or Augmon and became a solid college player. After going out on top, he never made it in the pros and now works at the Hard Rock Cafe in Vegas. He looks back on the season fondly, but says if he had to do it over again, he never would have left St. John’s.

“I would have been better off as far as longevity and playing time—and self-confidence,” he says now. But that doesn’t mean Scurry doesn’t have warm memories of his time with Tarkanian and Co. “I think about it almost every day,” he admits.

Out of the 40 games they played that season, the ’89-90 Runnin’ Rebels suffered just five losses: to Kansas in the preseason NIT, on a neutral court in New York; and to Oklahoma, New Mexico State, LSU, and UC Santa Barbara, all on the road. On the surface, that final defeat looks bad. But those Gauchos qualified for the NCAA tournament and almost pulled off another regular-season upset of the Rebels when they lost by only two points in Vegas.

It wasn’t the only close call. Despite winning 21 of 22 to finish out the season, the Rebs nearly dribbled the title off their foot with an aorta-gouging 69-67 squeaker over Ball State in the NCAA regional semifinals. Call it an aberration, because UNLV then went on to beat Loyola—which had ridden the emotion of Hank Gathers’ memory all the way to the Elite Eight—131-101 only two days later to earn a Final Four spot.

Finally, it was back to Denver, where the championship seed had been planted a year earlier. The Final Four was played in the cozy confines of 17,000-seat McNichols Arena, a bi-level gym built in the ’70s. Despite excellent sight lines, the antiquated building has since been razed—which is exactly what UNLV did to Kenny Anderson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the semifinals. After a 90-81 run-you-off-the-floor Final Four win over Bobby Cremins’s Ramblin’ Wreck, the Blue Devils got next in the Championship Game.

Perhaps using the word “racist” is overly harsh, but there were obvious stereotypes heading into the finals. Duke, which played Bobby Hurley (a total non-factor against the Rebs because of a stomach virus) at point and Christian Laettner in the frontcourt, was a school known for its scholarly background, discipline and upper-crust breeding. UNLV was perceived as the exact opposite. The athletes didn’t care about attending class, right? The Strip and all its evil permeated the entire program. Coach K stood for truth, justice and the American way. Coach Tark was the Vegas rogue who overlooked NCAA rules.

“When they compared us to Duke, we were the bad boys,” Scurry says. “But at the same time, we were people too.”

The preppy academic types from the white-collar, high-minded East Coast institution were royal flushed, 103-73, by their slick, high-flying Vegas opponents. Most games contain ebbs and flows, or at least a handful of key moments and squandered opportunities that define the contest, but not this one. UNLV treated Duke like an annoying fly buzzing around the kitchen table. It nonchalantly rolled up the nearest section of newspaper, took aim and swatted the pest with a quick, precise stroke. Splat! Up 57-47 early in the second half, the desert posse cashed in its chips for an 18-0 run over a 2:51 span. Hunt scored 12 during that streak and finished with 29 and the MVP trophy. Duke limped back to Tobacco Road to regroup.

“That’s the best any team has played against us—ever,” Coach K said to reporters following the game. But ask the Rebs about that magical night, and they have trouble explaining it.

Says Tark: “Everything went right.” Hunt says: “I thought we were going to win, but to be truthful I didn’t think we were going to beat them by 30.” And Augmon: “We really surprised ourselves. It was one of those days when everything fell.”

One year later, UNLV could have used another one of those magical days. Following the elation of the championship in Denver, the Rebels didn’t lose a game until the ’91 Final Four. Then, despite having the nucleus back and Tark saying it was “our best team,” the Rebels were ambushed by Duke, which avenged its 30-point Denver debacle. No repeat for a team certain to repeat.

But they’ll always have ’90. They’ll always have the night when all was right. And you know what’s ironic? A guy like Anderson Hunt, who flies all over the globe looking for a game to play, doesn’t miss wearing a UNLV jersey as much as he misses the camaraderie.

“Road trips, going to parties, having fun with all the fellas, going bowling,” Hunt says, listing the memories. “You can’t get your college years back, but you never forget.”

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