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Twenty years later, UConn’s upset of Duke still reverberates

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This weekend in Minneapolis, the Auburn Tigers and Texas Tech Red Raiders will attempt something that hasn’t been achieved in this millennium: win a national title in their first Final Four appearance.

The 1999 UConn Huskies were the most recent to achieve the feat. With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, it seems a no-brainer than UConn would go on to become both a Final Four perennial and repeat national champion (2004, 2011, 2014). But those labels were far less certain for a team that entered the 1999 national title game against Duke as a 9.5-point underdog. It remains the biggest title-game spread of the past 20-plus years. (The Huskies covered it, and then some, with their 77-74 victory against the 37-1 Blue Devils.)

Here is the story of how UConn pulled off what many thought impossible, told by some of those who lived it.

‘You know what you have to do’

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that UConn reached the title game. The Huskies had spent more than two months as the nation’s No. 1 team during the 1998-99 season and were seeded No. 1 in the West Region.

That was the reality, but the perception was that Duke was unbeatable. The Blue Devils defeated all 19 ACC opponents they faced that season (regular season and ACC tournament) by double digits and carried a 32-game winning streak into the title game. Behind five future top-15 NBA draft picks (Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette and William Avery), they had scarcely been tested in the NCAA tournament.

For all it had achieved, UConn headed into the March 29 final in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a massive underdog, but multiple events on the eve of the title game fueled its attitude.

Khalid El-Amin (UConn guard, 1997-2000): Duke, they were a powerhouse. They were the team during the season that was head-over-heels over everyone else. But I had a sense that we could beat them. I knew we could play with them. That night, we had our team meeting. Coach [Jim Calhoun] said, “That team is better than you.” He’d never said anything like that before. You’re like, “Damn, Coach. It must be true.” Coach knew how to push our buttons.

Jim Calhoun (UConn head coach, 1986-2012): We were a 9-point underdog. We used that as a little bit of motivation. How can you play in the best league in America, go 33-2 and nobody thinks we can hang [with Duke]? We were tougher, older. Mentally, we were more prepared.

Chris Carrawell (Duke forward, 1996-2000): UConn was really good, too. They were right there: No. 1 or 2 all year long. Nobody talks about that. It wasn’t like UConn was a Cinderella. David against Goliath? That wasn’t the case.

Kevin Freeman (UConn forward, 1995-2000): We’d gone through the scouting report, and our assistant coach, Tom Moore, had labeled [Duke] the greatest team to ever play college basketball. That’s when I got a little upset because he was hyping everybody [on that team]. Everybody was NBA. Everybody was a first-round pick. Coach Calhoun, he would always rate games in terms of how you had to play to beat the team. It was the first time he ever came and said, “You’re going to have to play an A-plus game to beat that team.” That sent chills through everyone. The room got quiet for a second. That was the first time he’d ever said we had to bring an A-plus game to beat a team.

Rashamel Jones (UConn guard, 1995-99): We had a team meeting. I don’t remember Coach saying anybody was better than us. It was more, after the Duke scouting report, we had all the guys in our room [Jones and Ricky Moore roomed together] at the hotel. There was this special back in Durham, North Carolina, on ESPN or some station. They were at a gas station and they were selling all kinds of memorabilia. They were selling newspapers and magazines and T-shirts that said Duke had already won. I’ve never seen anyone put that out before the championship. People were buying them already like they’d already won. Moore turned the TV off and said, “You know what you have to do.”

Motivation from 1998: ‘This ain’t gonna happen to us again’

Some believe UConn’s journey to the 1999 national title actually started the year before, when then-freshman El-Amin (16.0 points per game) and sophomore Richard “Rip” Hamilton (21.5 PPG) led UConn to the Elite Eight of the 1998 tournament. It was the Huskies’ sixth second-weekend appearance in the previous eight seasons, but a breakthrough to the Final Four remained elusive, and frustratingly so, after losing to Vince Carter’s North Carolina squad 75-64.

El-Amin: We had a great run, but we were playing them in North Carolina country [Greensboro]. It was a tough loss. Of course we were going to be hungry [the following season].

Freeman: It was the most devastating loss of my career. To this day, I can still remember the locker room. I can remember the tears. … We were in tears, bawling. But we believed, if we could hang with that North Carolina team with Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and those guys, we could beat any team in the country the following year. And they should have won the damn tournament. [North Carolina fell to Utah in the national semifinals. Kentucky defeated Utah for the national title.]

Dave Leitao (Current DePaul head coach; UConn assistant, 1996-2002): We probably — I don’t think [the team] will ever admit it — but we weren’t ready yet, not just for that game but to win a championship. That locker room, it was solemn. The key was what happened after that.

Jones: We were good that year, but we were kind of young puppies. I don’t think we were even Huskies. But we all vowed before we hopped on that plane [in 1998], that next year was going to be different. It was a different mental state than ’98. We were in the locker room [after the North Carolina loss] and we looked at each other and we said, “This ain’t gonna happen to us again.”

Calhoun: I said to myself, if we kept Richard [Hamilton], we could be pretty good. You need pieces. That group came together after [that 1998] game. Khalid El-Amin’s mom came onto the bus and said, “We’re coming back next year!” Everybody left that building talking about, “We’ll be back next year! We’ll be back next year!” We might’ve set the table for that 1998-99 season on that bus after the loss to North Carolina.

After winning 1998 Big East Player of the Year honors and averaging 22.5 PPG in the tournament, Hamilton had a decision to make.

Leitao: Richard Hamilton had probably made the decision to go to the NBA. It’s one of the funniest stories. [Then-assistants] Karl Hobbs, Tom Moore and myself are all in the office and [Hamilton] walks in to tell us that he’s going [to the NBA], and he goes further down the hall and closes the door and he comes out of Coach Calhoun’s office and says, “Guys, let’s win a national championship.” He knew we had his best interest at heart.

Calhoun: There’s the famous story where Richard is down the corridor and he’s saying goodbye to everybody. Two hours later, he comes out of the office saying, “National championship! National championship!” Logically, we went back down his options; we didn’t force him [to come back].

El-Amin: For me, it was never even a question. I felt like, basically, he had to come back. We didn’t finish what we started. All of the players and alums come back in the summer and they tell you about the games they lost. You take that pain with you.

Calhoun: Our belief was, “What comes next?” We were preparing for something different. If we stayed healthy, we were on a 12-month mission. Everybody knew what we wanted to do.

Taking advantage of the NBA lockout

The summer before the start of the 1998-99 season, Hamilton suffered a foot injury that prevented him from participating in the team’s European exhibition trip. That’s when, according to players and coaches, his supporting cast came together.

El-Amin: Richard was hurt. Didn’t make the trip. That’s when we really got better. Everybody had to do something.

Leitao: Each one of the assistants got a chance to coach the team. Each one of the players got an opportunity to do things they hadn’t been able to do. Kevin Freeman experimented with playing much more on the perimeter, understanding his value and the team understood his value. That happened for everyone.

Freeman: We went over and played in Israel. We played in London. We played against pros that entire summer. Coach Calhoun had us mentally focused and in tune. It was big for me, too, kinda being the third fiddle with Rip and Khalid. We had to find different ways to score. We had to find different ways to play defense. Ricky Moore had to be more resilient on offense, and that carried over and showed up in the final game when I think he scored 13 points in the first half [against Duke in the national title game]. Everybody had to change roles. Everybody had to step their games up — even guys off the bench, who became vital pieces.

UConn had heard the hype about Duke, which entered the season ranked No. 1. But the Huskies had a secret: intense practices, sometimes against former players who needed to stay in shape during the NBA lockout.

Jones: We’d practice against Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, Kevin Ollie, and Coach would say before practice, “I expect you to beat them.”

Leitao: We had, for an extended period of time, NBA players in our gym to practice against every day. You take a couple of weeks of that — high-, high-level basketball and established NBA players — and it raised the level of day-to-day preparation beyond what Europe did for us, too. It was really amazing to watch. Those NBA guys, it wasn’t like they were screwing around. They had to stay sharp.

Jones: We practiced for 10 halves. There were elbows thrown. I remember one play with [UConn center] Jake Voskuhl. I was going to the basket in practice and my head went right into his head. I had to get 10 stitches.

Leitao: You have to understand some of the personalities …

Freeman: Me and Richard Hamilton’s one-on-one battles. We’d get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to play one-on-one and almost got into fistfights. We were roommates and we wouldn’t speak to each other for two or three days. There were days, two best friends, not speaking to each other for two or three days, and then the pickup games with the team in the afternoon. Two-, three-hour pickup games, nonstop, until one team was tired and was done or it ended in a fight. It was bad. Coaches tried to tame that competitiveness. It was complete battles every day. We could fight on Thursday in practice and be hanging out on Thursday night. I think that makes the chemistry for a championship team.

‘The dogfight’ before the title game

UConn won its first 19 games of the 1998-99 season, enjoying a 10-week stretch as the No. 1 team in America. And then, the Huskies hosted Syracuse on Feb. 1, 1999, and lost 59-42. Hamilton missed that game because of a bruised right thigh. The Huskies bounced back with a 70-59 win against No. 4 Stanford. El-Amin excelled with a game-high 23 points against the Cardinal and took the next step toward proving he could help guide the Huskies to a national title.

El-Amin: Coach came down on me. He thought I should have played better [against Syracuse]. I thought Rip was going to play. Then, in the locker room, he said he wasn’t. Coach kinda challenged me. Next, we played Stanford. They were a very good team. And I had to show the country and the nation who I was. I had to show, “You can ride me to the championship.” Being a leader, I wasn’t stepping outside my character. The coaching staff allowed me to be myself because I had the balance of the team in my hands.

Jones: Every night in the Big East was a war. That night, after that game [against Syracuse], you better believe Coach was on us. He never let us slip again.

Leitao: Looking back upon [the Syracuse loss], not being at full strength was one of the reasons. … It was a tough time. We had to really figure ourselves out. We were an absolutely “no excuses” group.

Before facing Duke in the tournament, UConn had to push past some tough opponents. Players and coaches say Gonzaga, UConn’s opponent in the Elite Eight, gave the Huskies as much trouble as Duke did in the title game. Quentin Hall scored 18 points for Gonzaga, which led by one at halftime before UConn finished with a 67-62 win.

Freeman: That was our toughest game. The national championship was won against Gonzaga. That was the first time we fell prey to pressure during that run. To me, that was the toughest game.

Jones: Gonzaga, everybody …. We didn’t blow nobody out. It was down to the wire.

El-Amin: That is something I’ll never forget. That was a dogfight. They came out and they were hungry. Gonzaga wanted to show that, yes, they were from the West Coast Conference, but they wanted to play with the big dogs.

Leitao: This was the beginning of what Gonzaga is now. They put it on us. Their quickness really put it on us. They got Khalid in early foul trouble and we really had to put our best foot forward to win. That was part of the buildup with confidence and getting through tough times and relying on one another.

Dan Monson (Gonzaga head coach, 1997-99): What made that Gonzaga team great was our mindset. They respected everyone but feared no one. To this day, those players feel like they should have won that game.

Showtime: A ‘riled-up’ UConn team

After the test against Gonzaga, UConn edged Ohio State 64-58 to earn its spot in the title game. With Duke’s 68-62 victory against Michigan State, the final matchup was set. Not many gave the Huskies a chance, a continued source of motivation for the team.

Freeman: I remember bits and pieces of different stories. There was a story about [the title game being dubbed] the “Duke Invitational” on the news and it just came across the screen. They were saying that the whole season had been built on this and, basically, everybody had been invited to their tournament. It was their tournament. We were sitting there and we couldn’t believe it. It had happened throughout the year, but that was like the climax moment. It got everybody riled up. To us, it was an insult because we felt like we were the better team. We had been battle-tested. For us, it was a sign of disrespect … it woke us up.

Leitao: I don’t know if I quite remember that meeting the night before, but whatever was said, it was motivation. It was one of the best teams in the history of college basketball. We went very, very light in practice on that Sunday and then we had the Sunday night meeting. In that Monday shootaround, we went at it. We got after it. It was good, sharp. I came back to the hotel. Our wives were eating lunch outside by the pool. I can’t remember who I said it to, but I said, “If we were to play the game right now, we’d win by 20.” That’s how ready our guys were. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with that conversation on Sunday night.

El-Amin: I was a little nervous. As a youngster from Minneapolis, I definitely was nervous.

To the surprise of just about no one, Duke led at the half 39-37. To the surprise of some, UConn was clearly not going away.

Freeman: If Duke had slowed the game down, we would’ve been in trouble; but because they’re used to playing fast and blowing people out, that [speed] played right into our hands.

Jones: It’s like a family. Just our toughness, our mental toughness; the way we played, the way we practiced. We knew we were the toughest team mentally. We were gonna run for 40 minutes. You couldn’t keep up with us.

Freeman: We were down at halftime, but it seemed like we were up. We never lost confidence. We were just so dialed in. … It was just like, “We’re gonna win.” We just kept focusing on that and the tide had been turning. And the way that Rip was playing, he was unconscious. If he’s playing like that, there’s no way we’re going to lose.

Langdon (25 points) and Brand (15 points, 13 rebounds) played well, but future pros Battier (six points on 2-of-7 shooting), Avery (11 points, including 2 of 9 from 3-point range) and Maggette (eight points in just 11 minutes) were not particularly effective. Duke also got outmuscled on the boards 38-27. Langdon committed two late key turnovers, including a traveling call in the final minute. Meanwhile, Duke struggled to defend Hamilton (27 points) and on the defensive end in general against a UConn team that shot 32-of-61 (52.5 percent). A determined El-Amin (12 points, four assists) made clutch shots and free throws down the stretch, and a collection of talented contributors refused to back down against the Blue Devils.

Jones: Rip was our guy, but to me, Khalid was better than half those players on Duke’s roster. Khalid was our glue. There were not too many people that could have hung with us. Late in the game, we had to get stops. Even Coach will tell you, shots are gonna fall but defense wins games.

Leitao: Rip had been playing well; but, conversely, as much as you can talk about Khalid’s heroics and what he could do with a basketball in his hands, and Rip — that team was built on defense. Ricky Moore was the best defensive player in America.

Calhoun: You gotta believe you’re gonna get there. What can you do to get there? Each time we needed to adjust, we adjusted. I kept saying, “Finish, finish, finish.”

El-Amin: I hope they’re saying 20 years from now what they’re saying now. Duke didn’t lose that game. We beat Duke. That wasn’t luck.

Nate James (Duke forward, 1996-2001): If you redo it nine or 10 times and William Avery plays the way he played all year, we play and we win that game nine out of 10 times, But the NCAA tournament doesn’t work like that.

Chris Burgess (Duke reserve, 1997-99): I remember going through multiple practices where Trajan never missed a shot. And then [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] addressed Trajan. He had turned the ball over the last possession. We were down three. He made sure he looked at him and said, “If I had the exact same situation, the ball is in your hands. It will always be in your hands.” I don’t think any of us wanted anyone else to have the ball. As good as Elton was, we wanted the ball in Trajan’s hands.

Carrawell: Really, they had the best player on both teams. Although Elton was the national player of the year, Rip Hamilton was a monster. He was the real deal.

El-Amin: Rip was the best player on the floor and he showed it. Rip also had the right teammates around him to let him shine.

Jones: We were resilient. We never took our foot off the pedal. When we felt that we had you, we were never letting up. We had a sense of urgency. Even in warm-ups, our approach never changed. People thought, “These guys are good, but they’re not Duke.” But we took down those giants. You’re facing a team that won’t back down from you now. We knew toughness was their weakness. They had it all. We had it all, too.

Burgess: They beat us. I mean, they beat us. I have not watched it, to be honest, since. I just remember being like, “They were better than us. They were better than us that night.”

James: [Duke] probably was the most talented team, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t win it because that team really doesn’t get the recognition because we didn’t seal the deal. The margin of victories we had that year, we were just blowing everybody out. We knew we were good, but to be honest, it wasn’t something where we sat around like, “Wow, we’ve got so much talent. We’re gonna take it to you.” We didn’t feel like, “Hey, the championship is ours.” We just knew that we were good.

Carrawell: You win that game, you’re the best team, arguably, in college basketball history — you go 38-1. I still have nightmares about that. You think about it all the time.

Time to celebrate: Plane rides and pandemonium

After the game, players, coaches and their families stayed up all night and celebrated the win, then tried to get back to campus … which was a challenge.

Leitao: Oh my goodness. Yeah, yeah. The euphoria of winning, especially because of the sacrifices all those guys had to go through to get to that point was life-altering. [The celebration] lasted throughout the night. I remember being up when the local and national media folks were in our lobby at 6 a.m., doing their broadcasts. I hadn’t gone to bed yet. It’s something I wish everyone could enjoy.

Freeman: The weight of the world was off us. We didn’t sleep all night. Coach Calhoun promised us he’d get the Los Angeles Lakers’ plane. It ended up being the New York Rangers’ plane to go back home. It had some of the biggest seats I’d ever seen. We stayed out all night. We went to the beach. Our families were there. It was awesome, but the best part was getting back to campus. Roads were shut down. Highways were shut down. Police escorts. And then Richard Hamilton being my roommate, I had to suffer. We had a police escort [to get] outside our dorm room. We couldn’t go outside. It was pandemonium on campus, but it’s something I’ll always remember.

El-Amin: It was an unbelievable season. We were No. 1 for 16 weeks, maybe more. We had a great team. It was what I expected when I decided to go to Connecticut. We had Big Jake. We had Kevin Freeman, the warrior; he never complained. We had Ricky Moore, the defensive stopper who allowed me to just play offense. We had “Big Head” Rip, the guy who could get buckets.

Calhoun: A lot of people have photo albums for their memories. I was fortunate enough to get rings. After the game, I looked for my wife. That year was great. We were so close to getting there in 1998. Now, [after 1999], Connecticut joined the elite. We did something and we kept our dream.

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