Georgia Tech’s 1990 Final Four team goes down memory lane

Thirty years after perhaps the most cherished basketball season in school history, members of Georgia Tech’s 1990 Final Four team had assembled again. They were in Nashville, Tenn., for a fundraiser at Fisk University last fall. Kenny Anderson – the Yellow Jackets’ dazzling point guard – was at the start of his second year as coach at the NAIA school and was recovering from a stroke suffered last February.

Coach Bobby Cremins was there, as were team members Dennis Scott, Malcolm Mackey and Brian Domalik.

“We all met in Nashville, and I couldn’t believe how close those guys were,” Cremins said this past week. “Those guys, they really stepped up for Kenny when he had that stroke.”

The bond that 30 years ago helped fuel a thrilling Final Four run connects players and coaches still. Text messages, phone calls and personal visits continue to tie this memorable squad together. Now 72 and retired in Hilton Head, S.C., Cremins has heard recently from several former players checking on their old coach to make sure he was doing O.K. with the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’m closer with them than any other of the teams that I played on at Georgia Tech,” said Mackey, who was a tough-rebounding and pick-setting freshman on that team.

Before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, this weekend might well have been another chance for members of that heralded team to reconvene with the Final Four in town. Cremins would have come to Atlanta for the coaches convention, as would have Rod Balanis, a redshirting freshman on that team who is now an assistant coach at Notre Dame. A number of team members still live in town. About 10 team members and staff had gathered at a Tech basketball game in January when they were honored on the team’s 30th anniversary.

The first cancellation of the NCAA tournament in the event’s history may have derailed a chance for those fabled Yellow Jackets to meet up in person. But it can’t dissipate their bond.

“It means everything to me,” Anderson said. “It was just a lot of memories, a lot of great memories.”

The tournament run

If a little fuzzy, the memories are easily summoned.

How Brian Oliver, playing with a stress fracture in his ankle throughout the season, willed himself to finish the ACC championship game after aggravating it in the second half against Virginia. Oliver led the Jackets to the conference title, scoring 70 points in three games and earning tournament MVP honors.

“I just remember not wanting to let my teammates down, realizing that I think the last ACC championship that Georgia Tech had won was back in the (Mark) Price/(Bruce) Dalrymple/(John) Salley days,” Oliver said. “And we had fallen short so many years and, it being my senior year, just kind of realizing that the moment was now.”

How the No. 4 seed Jackets were overwhelmed in the second round by LSU, featuring the gargantuan pair of Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts along with Chris Jackson – all eventual first-round picks – before rallying to win 94-91. Cremins, who happened to watch a replay of the game a couple weeks ago, had no problem acknowledging that his team was intimidated in falling behind 22-5.

“But the key thing is that we were intimidated, but we never stopped playing,” Cremins said. “I couldn’t get over the way we just kept playing.”

Anderson’s disputed shot at the buzzer in the regional semifinal against top-seeded Michigan State, sending the game to overtime, where Scott scored the game-winner with eight seconds to play.

Falling behind by 12 to Minnesota in the first half of the regional final before rallying behind 40 points from Scott, 30 from Anderson and 19 from Oliver – all but four of the Jackets’ points in the 93-91 win at the Louisiana Superdome.

“(Minnesota) had a shot to win (in the final seconds) and Johnny McNeil contested it,” Cremins said. “And then right there in New Orleans, it was pure happiness. Pure joy.”

Taking on UNLV

Upon their return from New Orleans, being welcomed home at their gate at Hartsfield International Airport by hundreds of fans (back at a time when non-passengers were permitted to enter the concourse). Oliver said he felt like a rock star passing through the throngs.

“And the city was really on fire because of the excitement with what we had gone through the season, winning the ACC tournament and now going to the Final Four,” Oliver said. “It was a lot of hoopla. I remember it as if it was yesterday, believe it or not.”

Scott’s transcendent play, capping a season in which he set an ACC single-season scoring record (970 points and still a record) and won national player of the year. In the tournament, he scored 153 points in five games and made 24 of 54 3-point tries.

“He was automatic,” Balanis said. “He had such a quick release and it was an effortless release. If he got a good look, it was going down.”

Taking a 53-46 halftime lead against ballyhooed UNLV at the Final Four in Denver – Scott scored 20 points before the half – before the No. 1 seed Rebels spurred a comeback with a change of defenses and then Anderson picked up his fourth foul with 11:38 left in the second half. With Anderson on the bench, UNLV opened up its lead and went on to win 90-81, then demolished Duke in the championship game.

“I thought that Kenny being in foul trouble could have easily cost us a national championship,” Oliver said. “But, again, that’s one of those ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. If he had played, would it have been different? The results may have still been the same, but I think that one of the things that sticks out in my mind is that we went into that game feeling that we were the better team.”

After the season, Scott left as a junior and became the No. 4 overall pick. Oliver was a second-round pick. Anderson left the following year after his sophomore season and was selected second overall. Off that team, besides the famed Lethal Weapon 3, Mackey, Matt Geiger and Ivano Newbill also played in the NBA.

“You’ve got to be a little lucky in that tournament, and we definitely had luck on our side,” Balanis said. “I wish Kenny didn’t get in foul trouble. If we would have played Duke in the championship game, I think we would have won.”

What could have been

A funny thing about the 1990 team. It may not have been Cremins’ best of his 19 seasons. While he feels gratefulness for having made one Final Four, he rues two other missed opportunities in particular. The 1986 team that starred Price, Salley, Dalrymple and Tom Hammonds was a No. 2 seed but lost to No. 11 seed LSU (and eventual Final Four participant) in the Sweet 16, a game played in Atlanta at the old Omni.

The two teams were similar, but based on experience and interior superiority, Cremins gives the nod to the 1986 team.

“Now watch – if you print that, I’m going to hear from those (1990) guys,” Cremins said. “They’re going to give me a hard time.”

The 1992 team, a No. 7 seed, knocked out No. 2 seed USC in the second round with James Forrest’s desperation 3-pointer, but lost to No. 6 seed Memphis State (starring Penny Hardaway) in overtime in the next round.

“We should have made the Final Four two or three times instead of once,” Cremins  said. “And I think had we done that, I think we would have won it once.”

Back to Denver. After the UNLV loss, Cremins had missed opportunity on his mind as he retreated to the locker room. But, upon entering, he saw a room full of players hugging each other and congratulating each other on a great season. Leading the way was, of course, Oliver.

Cremins’ mood changed, and he joined in the hugging and thanked the team for the ride. Three decades later, the appreciation continues.

Said Oliver, “To be honest, it’s 30 years and not that I spend a lot of time living in the past, but I think that when the years go on and you start to reflect on just your playing career, you appreciate bonds that you have.”