Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Thomas & Mack Turns 25:

No. 2: Capping off a dream season

Win over Louisville springboards Rebels to NCAA title

National Champs

Justin M. Bowen

A preview poster from UNLV’s 1989-90 basketball season shows Rebels Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson posing with the help of a picturesque Las Vegas sunset in the background.

Click to enlarge photo

A copy of a 1990 Sports Illustrated cover shows the Rebels' run through the Final Four on its way to an NCAA championship win over Duke.

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Beyond the Sun

Editor's Note: In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Thomas & Mack Center's opening on Nov. 21, 1983, the Sun is celebrating the building's colorful history with a top 25 countdown - to No. 1 on Nov. 21, 2008 - of the biggest events held inside the arena located on UNLV's campus.

It might not have been prophetic or even a stretch, but Louisville coach Denny Crum knew the reality of playing UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center on Feb. 24, 1990.

UNLV (23-4) was ranked fourth in the nation. No. 16 Louisville was 20-6.

The late-morning Saturday game against the Cardinals was UNLV’s regular-season finale.

“I believe this is one of Jerry (Tarkanian’s) best teams,” Crum said. “UNLV is a team that has an excellent chance of going to the Final Four. And this place is very difficult to play in.”

The Rebels had gone 86-6 in six previous seasons inside the Mack, including 15-0 and 16-0 campaigns.

They were 16-0 in their building when Louisville visited Las Vegas, so a victory over the Cardinals would give UNLV its best home season in its 7-year-old arena.

It was the only season in which more than 300,000 fans packed the Mack, and they saw history in the making.

“I like the way we’re playing right now,” Tark said. “We’re almost where we want to be.”

He warned his players about Louisville’s tendency to play down to weaker foes but to challenge the heavyweights.

“They don’t always go hard against Johnny Junior High,” Tark said. “But fellas, on any given night those guys can be the best team in the country.”

Five minutes into it, the Rebels had a 14-0 lead. A courtside official, by CBS broadcasters Brent Musburger and Billy Packer, raised his hand to signal for a television timeout.

Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony chased Louisville’s guards all the way to their bench.

A raucous crowd of 19,099 exploded, and UNLV coasted to a 91-81 victory.

It was much more than a victory. It was the springboard to the Rebels’ lone national championship and put the cap on the best of their 25 seasons inside the Thomas & Mack Center.

The previous season, Louisville beat UNLV, 92-74, at Freedom Hall in Kentucky. Pervis Ellison, the top pick in the NBA draft a few months later, had 28 points.

“They embarrassed us at their place,” Hunt said, “so we had to return the favor.”

Crum had suspended leading scorer Jerome Harmon for academic reasons, but Tarkanian could have claimed his squad had been disabled, too, because of Anthony’s jaw.

Two weeks earlier, Anthony took a nasty fall, landing on his chin and breaking his jaw in two places. It was so violent, Dr. Daniel Orr initially believed Anthony might have snapped his neck.

Orr wired Anthony’s jaw shut, and the spitfire guard practiced less than 24 hours later.

Two days later, he played against New Mexico State.

Anthony and Hunt combined for 33 points and 12 assists against the Cardinals.

“It amazes me what that kid has done,” Tarkanian said after the game. “I never would have expected it. It takes a lot of courage to drive in there with a broken jaw.”

After an early collision with Cornelius Holden of Louisville, Anthony went to the bench “to readjust his face,” according to the Sun’s account of the game.

Moments later, he was back on the court.

“The most fearless player in the country,” Tarkanian said.

Anthony said he found himself praying that the game would end quickly.

“I’m so tired,” he said. “By then I just want to go and lay down. It was fun out there today. Right now, I just want to go home and get a good night’s sleep.

“That’s the hardest thing to do; sleep at night.”

Felton Spencer had 24 points and 9 rebounds, but UNLV junior forward Larry Johnson tallied 22 points, 15 boards and 6 steals.

“I think UNLV is one of those teams that can win it all,” Spencer said.

He was right. Crum was right. Tarkanian was right. The Rebels breezed through the Big West Conference tournament in Santa Barbara to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

They were tested in a West Regional semifinal, squeaking by Ball State, 69-67. In the regional final, they ended Loyola Marymount’s magical run, 131-101.

Trailing by seven points at halftime of a national semifinal against Georgia Tech in Denver, UNLV won by nine.

When the Rebels creamed Duke by 30 for the title, still the largest margin of victory in an NCAA final, more than 7,000 were watching on the large screens inside the Mack.

Anthony, finally, slept soundly.

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