On Sunday, as Duke seized its third NCAA East Regional title in four years by defusing Georgetown 85-77, there was a feeling that history was repeating itself. On the floor of the Meadowlands arena in East Rutherford, N.J., was do-it-all Danny—Danny Ferry, elevating his supporting cast of Blue Devils to the Final Four, a la Danny Manning of Kansas last spring. There was Hoya coach John Thompson's forceful defense failing to create enough offense for victory, which was the undoing of his 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Yet, in the course of this memorable clash between two of the decade's preeminent teams—oddly, considering the many tournament appearances Duke and Georgetown have made, this was the first meeting between the schools in 56 years—there was also a glimpse of the future, in the form of a 6'10" blue-eyed Blue Devil freshman named Christian Laettner.
All Laettner did was go toe-to-toe with college basketball's most intimidating presence, fellow freshman center Alonzo Mourning of the Hoyas, and blow him away. Laettner did it on his first bucket, a follow-up of his own shot that Mourning had swatted away, and he kept on doing it from near and far for game-high totals of 24 points and 9 rebounds. Laettner is a 19-year-old from Angola, N.Y., just south of Buffalo, and his three-day beard is little more than a dusting of blond stubble. But his callow looks and clapping, yapping enthusiasm belie a steely self-assuredness. "Last year, my high school coach and I would watch all the Duke games, and we'd just look at each other and laugh," he says. "We knew what Duke needed: a rebounder, someone strong inside." Someone like, say. Christian Laettner.
In his first year, Laettner has been at least as productive as Ferry, now a senior, was in his. Duke first caught Laettner's attention in 1986, with the performance of its five starters at a Final Four press conference on TV. "They were all smiling at each other and having a good time," he recalls. "I loved that." And Laettner first caught the eye of a prominent Duke Law School alumnus, Richard Nixon, when the former president watched him blow a clutch free throw in the Devils' 77-75 loss to Arizona on Feb. 26 at the Meadowlands. Nixon sought Laettner out in the locker room to console him. Says Laettner of their brief summit, "It was a lot of fun."
April 2, 1989
With his old pal Dick on hand again last Friday, Laettner scored 10 points and had 11 rebounds to help propel the second-seeded Blue Devils to an 87-70 semifinal romp over Minnesota. No. 1 seed Georgetown, meanwhile, rode the outside shooting of guard Dwayne Bryant, who scored 21 points, and the inside menace of Mourning, with his 12 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks, to a 69-61 defeat of North Carolina State. In that game, with the Hoyas ahead 59-56 and 1:47 left, Wolfpack guard Chris Corchiani was whistled for a dubious traveling violation, which canceled his driving basket and a possible fifth foul on Mourning. After the game, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano shook Thompson's hand, took a few steps away and then felt his knees buckle under the weight of that call. "Unbelievable," muttered Valvano, who may be muttering much worse things if he coaches, as seems likely, the L.A. Clippers next season.
Before the regional final, each of these oft-honored programs bathed the other with effusive praise. Ferry allowed that Georgetown senior point guard Charles Smith might be the most polite person he had ever met. "I really feel that Danny is very polite also," said Smith. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski lauded Georgetown's tenacity and integrity; Thompson laughed: "People accuse you of being a little funny if you keep saying how much you like the guy."
The chumminess ceased with Sunday's tip-off, as the two clubs attacked one another with contentious, mostly man-to-man defenses. At one point near the end of the first half, a referee huddled with Smith and Ferry and warned them to cool their troops. "This is a basketball game," said the official, "not a bout." By the end of the first half, Georgetown was ahead 40-38.
During the intermission, Krzyzewski told the 6'10" Ferry, who had only seven points, to slow down so that his teammates might have more time to get open, to spread the Hoya defense and to give Ferry room to work. The strategy succeeded: Ferry scored 14 second-half points, giving him 39 and 12 rebounds for the two games, and the region's MVP award.
"He does whatever you need to do to win," said Krzyzewski of Ferry. Indeed, Ferry defeats the double-team with his mixed bag of passes; and his ballhandling skills, which neutralized the Georgetown press, his taking charge and taking charges, even his chatty, almost hands-on relationship with game officials are the little constants that add up to victories. "I just keep my space from Danny and let him do his thing," says Laettner. "He creates so much."
Duke also rededicated itself at half-time to attacking Mourning, who would finish the game with 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks. Afterward he confessed to being slow and out of sync against the Blue Devils. "You wouldn't call them freshman mistakes," Mourning said. "I don't play like a freshman." True enough. But Duke guard Phil Henderson went at him, with 9:32 left, like a veteran possessed. Driving the lane with his left hand, the 6'4" Henderson rose like high noon over Mourning for a vicious righthand jam, and two of his 23 points. "You might check the court," said Duke point guard Quin Snyder in awe. "The saliva from my drooling might still be there." With Laettner and Ferry emitting primal screams, the dunk spurred Duke to a 15-5 run and a 75-61 lead.
The Hoyas, though, are nothing if not relentless. And deep. Thompson, who had been trying more combinations than a bumbling safecracker, found a small, quick lineup that sparked the Hoyas to a 14-2 counterpunch, and Georgetown drew to within two, 77-75, with 3:03 left. Smith, picking up loose balls, passing and penetrating, spearheaded the rally. Georgetown doesn't retire jerseys, which may be fortunate for Smith: the Hoyas might mistakenly hoist his No. 13 to the rafters with him still in it. Quiet, expressionless and with a mere 160 pounds hung on his 6'1" frame, Smith scored 21 points in the final, 20 more than he had in the semis, when he was running a fever. "It was like in El Cid, when they stuffed him up and put him on the horse to let him lead the charge," Thompson said of Smith's role in the game against North Carolina State. "I let him run around on the floor, so the kids knew he was there."
The final three minutes of the Duke-Georgetown game tested the poise and power of both teams. The Devils forced the Hoyas into 1-for-9 bricking from the field while Duke converted 8 of 10 free throws. Even Laettner avenged his earlier miss at the Meadowlands by hitting a foul shot with 1:09 remaining.
Said Laettner, "I think I'm the happiest of everyone because this is my first time to the Final Four. But I do know there are other things to be won."
His elders—Ferry and Snyder—do, too. At their suggestion, the team decided at dinner Saturday night that the Devils would leave the Meadowlands' nets intact if they won the regional. "When you cut the net down, that means you reached the end of your journey," said Snyder. "We aren't there yet." But a win over Seton Hall and Duke's first ever title-game triumph after three tries—now that would be worth a net-snipping. Or at least a primal scream.