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Arizona-Duke: Revisiting the rivalry

Anthony Gimino Avatar
November 9, 2023
Derrick Williams had one of the great performances in the Arizona-Duke rivalry, with 32 points in the 2011 Sweet 16. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Sean Elliott vs. Danny Ferry. The ridiculous and regrettable no-call on Jay Williams in the 2001 national championship game. “Dookie Vitale.” Derrick Williams soaring down the lane. East Coast vs. West Coast. Lute Olson vs. Mike Krzyzewski.


The rivalry is renewed on Friday night in Durham, N.C., the series already packed with memories despite this being the teams’ first scheduled meeting since 1991.*

*The story I have always heard is that Coach K, unhappy with the officiating in McKale Center in games in 1987 and 1991, didn’t want to return to Tucson. His compromise was to offer a “home-and-home” series with one game in Durham and the other at Duke’s home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden. Lute rightly said, “No way, K.”  But new coaches Tommy Lloyd and Jon Scheyer have resurrected the series – good for them, great for us.

Arizona-Duke has been played only nine times over the years, including a nonconsequential meeting in the consolation bracket of a tournament in Pittsburgh in December 1961. But since a clash in the title game of the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic on Dec. 30, 1987, each of those eight meetings has seemed like an event.

And even when the teams weren’t playing on the court, this rivalry was fire. Olson loved to call out ESPN’s Dick Vitale for his fawning over the Dookies, and railed against the network’s relentless publicity of Duke golden boy JJ Redick over the superior-shooting Salim Stoudamire.

Arizona-Duke has been fun … and can be again.

Here’s a look at those eight Arizona-Duke matchups:

Tucson, Dec. 30, 1987 – Arizona 91, Duke 85

Arizona was enjoying the first No. 1 ranking in school history for a second consecutive week and carried an 11-0 record into the game. Duke was 6-0 and ranked ninth.

Elliott scored 31 points against Duke’s aggressive man-to-man defense, and Tom Tolbert added 19, to lead Arizona. Ferry and Kevin Strickland countered with 25 points each for the Blue Devils. Duke tried to rally late, hitting three 3-pointers in the final 46 seconds, but Arizona stiff-armed the Blue Devils by making 11 of its final 12 free throw attempts.

Rivalry, on.

Olson, in his book – Lute! The Seasons of My Life – wrote that at some point Ferry was near the Arizona bench on the sideline and said something like, “Nice hometown refs.” Olson retorted: “Just play the game.” Then Coach K got involved. And then, before you knew it, the coaches were exchanging words, with the officials bringing them together and warning them to cool down or risk technical fouls.

“For a team like Duke that does not get a lot of fouls called against them at home to complain about the officiating was absolutely ridiculous,” Olson wrote.

Or maybe Coach K was just upset that the McKale public address announcer had introduced his team as the “University of Duke.”

PHNX Wildcats podcast host Mike Luke and Jason Scheer discuss the Arizona-Duke matchup and explain why Wildcats football and basketball are the healthiest they have been since the mid-1990s.

East Rutherford, N.J., Feb. 26, 1989 – Arizona 77, Duke 75

Elliott and Ferry were the two best players in college hoops – they split the major national player of the year awards – but Elliott came out on top again, scoring 24 points, including a 3-pointer over Ferry to break a 70-70 tie with 53 seconds left. The Blue Devils had a chance to tie with one second to go, but freshman Christian Laettner missed the front end of a one-and-one.

“Yeah, I felt a little sympathy for him – but not too much,” Elliott said with a smile afterward.

Give Ferry his due, though: He finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five blocked shots and two steals. It wasn’t enough. The Wildcats, who battled back from an eight-point deficit after being up by 19 in the first half, improved to 22-3 and went to No. 1 in the polls the next day.

Durham, N.C., Feb. 25, 1990 – Duke 78, Arizona 76

The Wildcats held a 45-23 rebounding edge but struggled against Duke’s defense, committing 22 turnovers. The Blue Devils, led by Phil Henderson’s 28 points, sealed the victory with a pair of steals after Arizona has climbed within 73-72 late in the game.

The Wildcats were at the end of a stretch of four consecutive road games that began with a loss at UNLV. Think about this when considering the 2023-24 team’s daunting nonconference schedule: From a Sunday to Sunday, Arizona played the two teams that would go on to face off in the NCAA Tournament championship game (and in between the Cats swept Cal and Stanford).

Even at home, though, Coach K wasn’t happy with the officiating. He earned a technical foul with a tirade at the end of the first half.

Tucson, Feb. 24, 1991 – Arizona 103, Duke 96 (2 OT)

On the short list for the Greatest Game in McKale Center history.

The Blue Devils, who had ended Oklahoma’s 51-game home winning streak two months earlier, set their sights on stopping Arizona’s 60-game run. They nearly did. But every time the Wildcats were hanging off the edge of the cliff by their fingertips, somebody came to the rescue.

Sean Rooks tied the game at 78 with a spinning short jumper off the backboard near the end of regulation, and Chris Mills tied it again with a 10-foot jumper with 11 seconds left in the first overtime. Matt Muehlebach made two huge defensive plays – a steal with 27 seconds left in regulation that led to a basket and another steal with five seconds to go in the first overtime – and then scored seven points in the second overtime.

Controversy? Of course!

Duke’s Greg Koubek was credited with a 3-point shot early in the first overtime, but officials overturned that about a minute later, ruling it was a two-pointer.

This game had it all. Afterward, Muehlebach shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “Just unbelievable.”

Lahaina, Haw., Nov. 26, 1997 – Duke 95, Arizona 87

The defending national champion Wildcats fell in the title game of the Maui Invitation as freshman guard William Avery scored 21 to lead third-ranked Duke. Miles Simon poured in 25 for No. 1 Arizona in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. Duke raced to a 24-point halftime lead after forcing 11 first-half turnovers.

Lute Olson and Luke Walton react to a Duke 3-pointer during the 2001 national title game. (Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT)

Minneapolis, April 2, 2001 – Duke 82, Arizona 72 (watch full game)

This is one of the great “What if?” games.

What if Gilbert Arenas wasn’t suffering from a shoulder injury?

What if Luke Walton hadn’t suffered a broken right thumb less than a week earlier?

What if the refs had called a foul on Duke’s Jay Williams, who rode the back of Arizona’s Jason Gardner as the players chased a loose ball midway through the first half. It would have been Williams’ third foul, likely changing the game’s complexion. We’ll never know … but we know.

When Williams was in Tucson in 2017 with ESPN’s College GameDay, he offered no apologies while admitting he committed the foul.

“What was I supposed to do? Tell the referee I fouled him?” Williams said. “I fouled Jason and everybody in the stadium of 45,000 knew I fouled him with the exception of those (officials) watching the game.”

As it was, Arenas shot just 4 of 17 from the field, and Gardner made only 2 of 11 attempts. Shane Battier led Duke with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, while Mike Dunleavy supplied the dagger with five 3-pointers, including a trio in succession in the second half.

“We heard this the next summer from anybody we saw when we went out recruiting – they honestly and truly felt it was the worst-refereed game they had seen to that point,” longtime Arizona assistant coach Jim Rosborough told me several years ago. “We heard it all over the place.

“I think Krzyzewski is clearly one of the top two or three coaches who has ever been, but I’ll tell you, he works those refs. And he was down there all over those refs that game, and maybe that had something to do with that. That’s my viewpoint. It’s not necessarily sour grapes, but it’s the truth.”

Anaheim, Calif., March 24, 2011 – Arizona 93, Duke 77

Derrick Williams turned in one of the greatest halves of basketball in school history – 25 points, including going 5 of 6 from behind the arc – but the Wildcats still trailed top-seeded Duke 44-38 at halftime of this Sweet 16 game. Then everybody else showed up for Arizona, which unleashed a 19-2 run to take control, hounding Duke on defense and dunking as if the Blue Devils were an intramural team.

Sean Miller’s second team at Arizona would go on to barely fall short in the Regional Final against eventual national champ UConn, but Williams’ epic effort – 32 points, 13 rebounds – and his thundering slams still echo in UA history.

New York City, Nov. 29, 2013 – Arizona 72, Duke 66

Fourth-ranked Arizona used its 2013-14 hallmarks – balance and defense – to win the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.

Nick Johnson scored 13 of his team-high 15 points after halftime to lead the Wildcats, which made life difficult for Duke freshman star Jabari Parker, who scored 19 points but was just 7 of 21 from the field, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range.

Much of the original research on Arizona-Duke was done for a book I co-authored with Steve Rivera: 100 things Arizona Fans Should Know and Do Before the Die.

Follow Anthony Gimino on X

Top photo: Derrick Williams had one of the greatest performances in the Arizona-Duke rivalry, with 32 points in the 2011 Sweet 16. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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