It wasn’t that Anderson Hunt didn’t want the ball. Shooting guards always want the ball.
Larry Johnson had it to begin with, bringing it up the court in Indianapolis with an unbeaten season and the national title on the line for UNLV. But he paused just outside the 3-point line and, with Christian Laettner in his face, passed the ball back to a trailing Hunt.
Hunt had already scored 29 points. But the desperation 3-pointer he never wanted to take banged hard off the rim, giving Duke a 79-77 win that few saw coming.
“I wish Larry would have taken the shot, he was the No. 1 player on the No. 1 team,” Hunt said. “If he missed it, there would be no problem. But when I missed it, they said I threw the game.”
The infamous photo of Hunt and two teammates in a hot tub with convicted game fixer Richard Perry had yet to surface, but both the college basketball establishment and the NCAA seemed determined to bring UNLV down.
A lot was said about those Runnin’ Rebels, winners of 45 straight over two seasons. Coming into the 1991 Final Four, it seemed inevitable that they would become the first team to go unbeaten and win a national championship since Indiana did it 15 years earlier.
They would do it in the Hoosiers’ backyard, beginning with a game against Duke, a team they had destroyed in the national championship game a year before.
“Just another game for us,” said Hunt, who was most valuable player of the Final Four the year before. “Our practices were harder than the games. Once we saw a different color jersey we wanted to tear them apart.”
Hunt believes UNLV would have won, but for a bad game by Stacey Augmon. He also believes there were a lot of people not wearing Duke uniforms who were conspiring to make UNLV lose.
The Runnin’ Rebels were fun to watch, but they were also easy to hate. They came from Sin City, and were as flashy as the city they represented. They also didn’t back down to anyone, making it easy to portray the semifinal game as a matchup of thugs against the choir boys of Duke.
And they did it with NCAA investigators everywhere, probing them about any spare cash in their pockets or where they went for meals.
“Some days we were pulled out of class to go talk to NCAA investigators,” Hunt said. “Or we would have to go in on our day off and answer questions from them. I think we were the only city in the whole country that the NCAA had a subdivision in, at least it seemed that way.”
It was the last hurrah for the Rebels, with most of the starting five either graduating or turning pro afterward. The next year the picture of the players in the hot tub with Perry would be published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and soon coach Jerry Tarkanian was gone, too.
Nearly a quarter-century later, another team comes into Indianapolis undefeated, needing just two wins to cap off a perfect season. Like the Rebels in 1991, Kentucky is a heavy favorite to do just that in a Final Four that once again includes Duke.
To Hunt, though, that’s where the similarities end.
“The difference between us being No. 1 and a lot of people loving us and Kentucky being No. 1 is a lot,” he said. “Every day was something we had to deal with the NCAA investigating us. We really couldn’t relax and have fun and be normal college students. They really wanted us to lose focus from the stuff going on off the court and go on to lose.”
It was the final game at UNLV for Hunt, who left after his junior season to turn pro. He wasn’t drafted in the NBA and spent years playing in various pro leagues around the world before returning to his native Detroit.
Hunt believes the national championship UNLV team would beat the current Kentucky team – and rather easily. UNLV’s stars were older and more seasoned than Kentucky’s young team, he said, and had role players who would mix it up inside with the Wildcats’ big men and throw them off their game.
“We played harder than anybody in the country and sometimes they (Kentucky) don’t,” he said. “And we played defense. Whenever you scored on us, you earned it, whether it was the first moment of the game or the last moment of the game.”
Hunt and many of his teammates from those teams returned to campus in February, though it wasn’t a joyous reunion. They were there to pay their respects to Tarkanian, who died at age 84.
The day after the funeral, Hunt, Johnson, Augmon and a few others got tattoos on their upper arms. On top of a basketball it says “UNLV National Champions 1990,” and underneath “RIP Coach Tark, 1930-2015.”
It was Augmon’s idea, Hunt said, and the rest of them were happy to go along.
“He had a bad game that night but he was always our leader,” Hunt said. “And he’s still leading us.”