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Hamilton’s number (finally) raised to the rafters at Gampel

STORRS – His smirk, smile and laughter told it all.

When asked how his team was able to pull off what’s considered a monumental upset over Duke in the 1999 National Championship Game, UConn legend Richard Hamilton quickly pushed aside the notion that the Huskies winning was a surprise. In fact, you could argue UConn, nine-point underdogs in the game, could’ve been the favorite.

The Huskies only lost two games that season, one with Hamilton out due to injury, the other by just two points against the 15th-ranked team in the country in Miami.

Upset? Hardly, according to UConn’s second all-time leading scorer (Hamilton needed only three seasons to score 2,036 points).

“I couldn’t believe we were nine-point underdogs to tell you the truth,” Hamilton said. “In our minds, we were the best team in the country all season long and we showcased that.”

Hamilton’s belief in himself, and his teammates, were crucial in capturing the program’s first ever national title. It’s also why Hamilton earned the ultimate accomplishment for a UConn player as his number 32 was retired at halftime of the Huskies’ 78-54 destruction of Villanova Saturday night Gampel Pavilion.

In the years leading up to Hamilton’s arrival in Storrs, the Huskies had some amazing seasons and memorable tournament runs, led by the Chris Smith, Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen teams. However, due to some bad luck, missed free throws and off games at inopportune times, UConn was unable to get past the Elite Eight.

Enter Hamilton and his core teammates, which included Khalid El-Amin, Ricky Moore, Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl. After a tough freshman season which ended in the NIT, the Huskies, with El-Amin now in the mix, took the lead in the second half of the Elite Eight against Vince Carter’s North Carolina squad – in North Carolina – before falling just short. Still a competitor, Hamilton questioned the NCAA on Saturday about the location of that contest.

UConn, though, rode its success into the 1998-99 campaign and was an unstoppable force. Hamilton led the way, averaging 21.5 points per game, as the Huskies posted a dominant 34-2 mark. In the national championship game, Hamilton, unfazed by the Duke mystique and countrywide attention, piled up 27 points and seven rebounds to win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

His cool and calm demeanor, combined with his killer instinct on the court, made him the perfect person to handle the burden of delivering UConn its first title. Many forget (or were not around) the constant pressure from a fan base worried that the Final Four was a pipe dream.

Hamilton came through. And Saturday was a great time to reminisce.

“The one thing that we didn’t have at the time I came was a national championship,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to do it for Coach (Jim) Calhoun. He was a guy that believed in me at 18-years-old. I told him today, ‘You said a lot of things were going to happen when I came to the University of Connecticut. You didn’t tell me jersey retirement (was a possibility).’

“It was well worth it.”

Hamilton’s banner joins Allen’s 34 in the rafters for the men’s squad. Yes, it’s baffling why it took nearly a quarter-century to bestow this honor upon him. Better late than never, though.

When the news came, it was a time to reflect.

“It’s one of those things, you didn’t play the game (to get your jersey retired,” he said. “You try to win as many championships as possible. That’s what I aspired to do as a kid. When they told me they were going to recognize me by retiring my jersey, I thought it was amazing. I tried to hold my emotions in when I was around my kids because I didn’t want them to see me cry.

“It was definitely a magic moment in my life.”

For Hamilton, this jersey retirement completes the trifecta as the Pennsylvania native now has his number 32 forever enshrined at his high school (Coatesville Area Senior High School), college and in the NBA (Detroit Pistons).

In the NBA, he played with Michael Jordan in Washington, led Detroit to a massive upset over the Shaq and Kobe Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals, and was a three-time All-Star selection.

Wherever he went, winning soon followed (UConn rattled off an insane 66-7 record in his last two seasons).

Even on Saturday, with the ESPN College Gameday crew on hand to promote the game, Hamilton was asked, on no notice, to attempt a half-court shot. He casually drained it with ease, leading the clip to go viral with the likes of LeBron James chipping in to discuss it.

At the end of his press conference Saturday, he joked how he’d still be in school if he had the opportunity to earn the NIL money today’s college athletes are allowed. Instead, he had to settle for a raucous ovation and his jersey number raised to the Gampel rafters for good, which is hardly a consolation prize. It’s better.

Finally.

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