Remembering UConn's first championship team, fifteen years later
The number nine, 15 years later, still boggles the mind of Jim Calhoun.
His 1998-99 UConn team defeated nearly everything in its path, losing only twice on its journey to the NCAA title game. The first defeat came in Hartford to Syracuse, a game in which starters Richard Hamilton and Jake Voskuhl each missed due to injury. The second came against a good Miami team on senior day at Gampel Pavilion, a contest the Huskies lost right at the buzzer.
Yet, despite a 33-2 record, a Big East regular season championship and a dominant charge through the Big East Tournament, UConn found itself a nine-point underdog against Duke.
Nine points. Yes, niiiine points.
“Duke at that time was considered one of the best teams in the past 10 to 15 years, but I didn’t believe we should’ve been nine-point underdogs,” Calhoun said. “I always thought we were a better team. We were more mature, tougher. It was never an upset in my mind.”
As you know, the Huskies prevailed on that late March night at Tropicana Field, 77-74, capturing their first national championship and lifting the weight of past tournament devastation to Duke, Florida and Mississippi State off of the program’s shoulders.
Following the game, the team’s dynamic point guard Khalid El-Amin memorably shouted, “We shocked the world!” into cameras. The world may have been shocked, but no one on the team was.
“It was no surprise to us,” said Voskuhl, a junior that season. “Even though Duke had five top draft picks, we were confident in our abilities. We truly felt we’d win the game.”
Richard Hamilton, a junior at the time, led UConn with 27 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. His most vivid memory of that night was a more calm and relaxed Jim Calhoun heading into the finale.
“The biggest thing I remember is coach’s attitude at the beginning of the game,” reflected Hamilton. “Usually, he was always on pins and needles. That was the first game he came in and told us to just relax and play. I think that really, really was the big thing for us, because we really believed we could win the game.
“We thought we were the best team in the country,” he continued. “We thought Duke was getting all the praise, but we didn’t mind that. It was something exciting for us. I think when Khalid had the ball and they were playing that ‘One Shining Moment’ song, and he was running with the ball with his hands up, I think that’s the memory that sticks in my head.”
Ricky Moore, in his final game in a Husky uniform, scored 13 points – all in the first half to help stave off Duke’s initial onslaught – and harassed Trajan Langdon, the Blue Devils’ best outside shooter, into two turnovers in the final seconds to help seal the win. Kevin Freeman was strong defensively as well, holding Shane Battier to only six points. Waterbury’s Edmund Saunders came off the bench and scored four points as did Souleymane Wane, including a memorable steal and bucket from Elton Brand.
It was the ultimate team effort against a team no one was supposed to beat.
Mike Krzyzewski’s squad was 37-1 entering the night and on a 32-game winning streak. Brand, an eventual No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick, averaged 17.7 points per game on 62 percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds. Langdon netted 17.3 points a contest and shot 44 percent on threes. William Avery, an eventual lottery pick, ran the point with precision, recording 14.9 points (48 percent shooting, 41 from three) and 5.0 assists a night.
UConn, though, was more than confident in its talent. The Huskies, just one year earlier, reached the Elite 8, falling to a loaded North Carolina team (in North Carolina) featuring Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. The experience gained was vital.
Simple plays, like making the right defensive rotation or making free throws (like El-Amin did in the final minute), are often missed by younger players overwhelmed by the moment. This UConn group, in its 10th NCAA Tournament game together, was rock solid under pressure.
“We built on it (from the year before),” Voskuhl said. “You need to learn from losses and situations. For us, it all started from our first year and we learned a lot from the experiences we had. It was a three-year process for us to win that national championship.”
After the season, Hamilton predictably passed on playing his senior season and declared for the NBA Draft. He was taken by the Washington Wizards and wound up playing alongside Michael Jordan. Hamilton added to his title resume with the Pistons in 2004, helping Detroit shock the Lakers in the NBA Finals. In search of a third ring, Hamilton, currently unemployed, is hoping to catch on with a contender for the stretch run of this NBA season.
El-Amin and Voskuhl played one more season at UConn and went on to be teammates for one year with the Chicago Bulls. El-Amin’s 50-game stint in Chicago was the only time he spent in the NBA before embarking on a long career overseas. This past Sunday, his named was added to UConn’s Wall of Honor at Gampel Pavilion.
Voskuhl spent nine seasons in the NBA, playing for Chicago, Phoenix, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Toronto. His high moment in the league came in the 2003 playoffs when he scored over Tim Duncan in the final seconds to help the Suns win a game.
Moore and Freeman are currently on UConn’s coaching staff, helping the Huskies of today to a 22-6 record and in good standing to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
Calhoun won two more championships as coach, coming in 2004 and 2011. He retired in 2012 and is still a fixture at UConn home games, usually taking in the action courtside on the baseline.
In his 26 years as Connecticut coach, he presided over many classics, including the Tate George shot, Hamilton’s Sweet 16 buzzer-beater in 1998, the 2004 Final Four comeback against Duke and Kemba Walker’s many heroics in 2011. It all comes back to the 1999 season for Calhoun, though. He particularly points to when the team returned home with the championship trophy as the pinnacle of his career.
“Walking into this building, after the disappointment of the nine years before and this time having the hardware in my hands, is still the highest moment of my coaching career,” Calhoun said.
The group returned to Storrs for the first time as a unit on Sunday for the 15th anniversary celebration. A special banner was raised in their honor and the crowd, in a reflective mood, gave them a rousing ovation. It was as if they never left, even 15 years later.
“The bottom line is that it will never be replicated, because the first time is the first time,” Calhoun said. “That’s one no one will ever forget.”
Calhoun certainly won’t forget. Nor will he forget the number nine.