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Early in the week, Krzyzewski and his players watched a tape of last year's final—but only the first six minutes—to illustrate to themselves the difference between playing with emotion (UNLV) and without it (Duke). Krzyzewski also asked his team to visualize the final minutes of a close game. "Game pressure," Krzyzewski called the circumstances his Blue Devils, who had played a far tougher schedule than the Rebels, could expect if they stayed close on Semis Saturday.
Against Vegas, Duke would only slightly alter its pressure man-to-man defense: Center Laettner would slough off his UNLV counterpart, George Ackles, to help out whoever was checking Johnson inside. Ackles might wind up beating Duke with medium-range jumpers, but the Blue Devils would take that chance.
Krzyzewski also appealed to his players to summon forth some of the substance that sustained his own playing career under Bob Knight at West Point—testosterone. Midway through the second half, Hurley got a bead on Anderson Hunt, the man who had been MVP of the 1990 Final Four at Hurley's expense, and hammered him on a breakaway. "Last year, Hunt dunks that," Duke assistant Mike Brey said. "Then he swings on the rim a little bit, and they come back downcourt smiling. But we fought them the whole way. We matched their aggressiveness."
In this machofest there would also be charges for the Blue Devils to take—as many as 20 at the defensive end alone, the Duke staff figured. Forward Brian Davis took the riskiest charge of all, with 3:51 to play and UNLV leading 74-71, when a driving Anthony muscled in a layup as bodies scattered. "If Greg gets the basket instead of the foul, experience makes no difference," Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian would say. "How many tight games we played makes no difference."
As it happened, the basket was waved off as Anthony was called for charging and banished with his fifth personal. Hunt suddenly had to bring the ball upcourt instead of spotting up to let it fly. "When your leader goes out down the stretch, it's like your head is gone," said Hunt.
Meanwhile Laettner's mobility and ball handling skills had enabled Duke to pull Johnson away from the basket and open up the middle of the Vegas defense. Duke made so-called flashing moves, sallies and cuts into the newfound fissures in the Rebels' D. With a couple of minutes to play, Brey turned to Tommy Amaker, another Duke assistant. "It would be a shame if we lost this game," he said, "because everything is falling into place."
The last things to fall came with slightly more than 12 seconds remaining: two free throws from Laettner, his 27th and 28th points. They gave the Blue Devils their final 79-77 lead. Moments later Hunt was jacking up a hurried 23-footer as Laettner and Hurley hurtled toward him. "A stupid shot," Hunt called his effort, which glanced benignly off the glass.
Tarkanian thought that Johnson should have shot from the right wing moments earlier, before passing to Hunt. "I'll never know why Larry didn't take that shot," he said. Faced with their only desperate moment in 35 games, the Rebels did what Krzyzewski had told his players they would do. They let game pressure get to them.
UNLV is normally one of the most open of programs, but even the casino host in Tarkanian hibernated on the eve of the Final Four. Perhaps he sensed something in the wind. On Wednesday night, 63-mph headwinds slowed Vegas's charter to Indianapolis, forcing it into a refueling stop—in Kansas City, right next door to the Rebels' good friends at the NCAA. Tarkanian, who had dozed off, awoke with a start. Had NCAA executive director Dick Schultz's private jet flown an intercept mission? "I thought, Oh, god, what did we do now?" he said.
The Rebels slipped in and out of side entrances of their hotel, forswore all autograph requests and had security guards stationed on their floor.