As Oklahoma State's players were dressing for last Saturday afternoon's Big Eight showdown with Kansas in Stillwater, they had more than a casual interest in the telecast of Duke's game against LSU in Baton Rouge. After State had beaten the Jayhawks 64-56, Cowboy guard Corey Williams told reporters, "Most of us were rooting for LSU. Some were for Duke." When that claim drew cries of derision from the press, Williams sheepishly amended his remarks. "I just wanted to throw that in," he said, acknowledging that all the Cowboys were pulling hard for Shaquille O'Neal & Co.
Going into last week, after all, Duke and Oklahoma State were the only unbeaten Division I teams. But on Feb. 5, No. 9 North Carolina upset the top-ranked Blue Devils 75-73 in Chapel Hill, and unranked Nebraska thumped the No. 2-ranked Cowboys 85-69 in Lincoln. That meant if Duke lost again at LSU—which seemed eminently possible, considering that point guard Bobby Hurley was out with a broken foot—Oklahoma State was likely to vault into the top spot with a win over No. 3 Kansas.
As it turned out, the Blue Devils, with the help of two crucial three-pointers from 6'11" Christian Laettner, came from behind to beat the Tigers 77-67 and retain the No. 1 ranking. But that hardly took anything away from what then transpired in Stillwater. The game turned into a defensive grappling match in which at least a couple of bodies seemed to be rolling on the floor on every play. Neither team shot better than 40%, and 52 fouls were called. The standing room only crowd of 6,381 rabid fans must have felt at times as if they were watching the Cowboys' famed wrestling team, which has put 29 NCAA championship banners in Gallagher-Iba Arena's rafters.
"It was a lumpy game, or whatever the opposite of smooth would be," said Kansas coach Roy Williams. He recalled a play when Ben Davis, the Jayhawks' 6'8", 235-pound forward, set an especially hard pick on 6'7", 250-pound Oklahoma State star Byron Houston, who embellished the contact with a nice bit of acting. "I thought Houston was going 27 rows up in the stands," Williams said. Despite getting just 14 points from Houston, who played only 23 minutes because of foul trouble, the Cowboys scratched and clawed to the win behind guard Scan Sutton's 16 points.
Earlier in the week, things had also gotten a little rough during Carolina's win over Duke. The Tar Heels took the floor determined to end, or at least silence, all the needling that had been coming from nearby Durham since the Blue Devils won their first NCAA title, last April. "Yeah, I was tired of hearing about Duke," said Eric Montross, Carolina's 7-foot, 264-pound skinheaded mountain of a sophomore center. "Tired of hearing about how good they were and how we couldn't beat them. We needed to get rid of that."
Montross's disposition wasn't helped any on game day, when Duke students Hooded the North Carolina campus with copies of The Daily Tar Hole, a spoof of the student newspaper. Under a large block of white space on the front page was this caption: "This big, useless white space was placed here to remind you of Eric Montross."
In the game, however, Montross was hardly useless. He and fellow 7-footer Kevin Salvadori double-teamed Laettner so effectively that Laettner had trouble catching the ball, much less doing anything with it. Of the seven shots Laettner missed (out of only 11 attempts), the two most critical came in the final 24 seconds, with North Carolina clinging to a 75-73 lead. Twice Laettner drove to the hoop with a chance to tie the score—and twice the ball rolled off the rim, the final time with only two seconds to go. "I'd like to have seen him pull up and shoot the three that last time," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"I think he [Laettner] thought he could get a three by driving and getting fouled," said Montross, who got a nasty gash on the back of his head and a cut under one eye (the blood ran down over his cheekbone, giving him a sort of Alice Cooper look) in addition to 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
The depth of Carolina's frustration with Duke's recent success (five Final Four trips in the past six years) was apparent in the way the Tar Heels celebrated. As the buzzer sounded, revelers poured out of the stands, creating a mob scene on the floor. When is the last time proud North Carolina celebrated a regular-season victory so wildly? Later, the party moved down to Franklin Street, the strip of bars, restaurants and shops that cater to students. The street had to be blocked off while an estimated 3,500 celebrants built a bonfire, honked car horns and generally blew off steam. As Tar Heel coach Dean Smith would say, it was just another win.