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Twenty years later, UConn’s first national championship win still a shocker

February 23, 2019

The night before shocking the college basketball world almost 20 years ago, UConn players gathered in a Tampa hotel room.

Veterans Ricky Moore and Rashamel Jones brought the Huskies together after a team meeting to hang out and watch television.

The Huskies felt confident about their chances to beat heavily-favored Duke in the NCAA championship game. They firmly believed they could do what few people outside of their basketball family thought possible.

That Sunday night they saw something on television that ticked them off and provided just a dash more motivation beyond proving doubters wrong, making program history and becoming the first team to win a national title in their first Final Four appearance since 1966.

An ESPN story showed a gas station in Durham, N.C., that already had newspapers on the stands and t-shirts calling Duke the national champion.

“And we didn’t even play the game yet,” Jones said. “We were all flabbergasted. We were all looking at each other, our mouths open. Are they disrespecting us like this? Really? We just kept looking. We couldn’t even say anything.

“Then Ricky was like, ‘You know what? Good night, get out. We’ve got business to do tomorrow fellas.’ And that was it right there.”

Just over 24 hours later, a magical Monday night ended with the Huskies celebrating a huge upset and a jubilant Khalid El-Amin running around the court at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., yelling: “We shocked the world!”

UConn 77, Duke 74.

“Here’s the best thing about it: Even though everybody said we can (win it), very few people really, really believed we would ... and we did,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “And I think that’s important. So it made it even more special.

“It’s nice to have championships and we had a few more after that. I just think it was a moment in time in Connecticut that kind of stood still. Everybody knew about the Huskies and Huskymania. It was amazing. And that was a great team that won it. It wasn’t a fluke. It was really the best team in the country.”

More fond memories of that historic night on March 29, 1999 will come flooding back Sunday when UConn celebrates the 20th anniversary of the program’s first national championship while hosting Cincinnati at the XL Center in Hartford.

During recent interviews, Jones, Kevin Freeman, Calhoun and assistant coach Tom Moore provided some stories from that memorable Final Four weekend.

Confident and ready

The morning of the championship game, UConn held its usual pre-game shootaround. The Huskies already were in game mode ... perhaps a bit too jacked up.

The opening tip was still roughly 10 hours away.

“Our guys were flying around,” Moore said. “I remember saying to coach Calhoun, ‘I wish we could play now.’ They were so excited. They had so much nervous energy.”

When practice ended, the Huskies went through their post-workout routine. Typically, Moore and Jones spoke to the team as did Calhoun before breaking up.

But that day, El-Amin delivered an inspirational message.

“Khalid very rarely said anything,” Moore said. “He said, with really great conviction, ‘Remember, they’re the ones that have to beat us.’

“It was really such a relief. It was very, very appropriate and spot on. It really took away some of the nerves that all of us were feeling, because all everybody ever talked about in the media for days leading up to that was we had to beat them.”

The team spent a relaxing afternoon waiting for the biggest game of their lives. Calhoun sat around the pool with his family and new granddaughter, two-month old Emily.

Calhoun never doubted UConn’s chances

During his Hall of Fame coaching career, Calhoun regularly scouted other teams during the regular season. Watching games from his living room, he’d scribble notes on blue index cards.

He paid particular attention to Duke during the 1998-99 season.

Calhoun figured UConn and Duke would meet down the road in the NCAA tournament. He began to formulate a game plan.

“Duke was on national TV all the time,” Moore said. “And (Calhoun) had a lot of notes and ideas in his head already on what he wanted to do with Duke. Just a masterful game plan, scouting report-wise, on how he wanted to play them and what he thought would work for us and wouldn’t work for us.”

Calhoun also had faith that his Huskies would make a deep post-season run. The previous year, they reached the East Regional final, losing to North Carolina before a pro-Tar Heel crowd in Greensboro.

It was UConn’s time.

It didn’t matter that a loaded Duke team had lost only once, won 32 straight games and demolished its tournament competition on the way to the Final Four, winning by an average of 30 points. It didn’t matter that some people called the 1999 NCAA tournament the Duke Invitational.

The Huskies were pretty darn good, too, losing just twice while capturing the Big East regular season and tournament titles.

“The 98-99 season, I just never felt like we could lose,” Freeman said. “We just had an air of confidence when we walked into the gym. That’s something you don’t see and it’s special.”

In the championship game, the underdog role suited Calhoun and his Huskies.

“Everybody was telling me how great Duke was,” Calhoun said. “I thought they were really, really good and very talented. But I thought we had a veteran team that lost in the Elite Eight the year before. I believe that if it wasn’t for a couple of injuries during the year, we might have never lost. We would have ended up going to the Final Four at 34-0 instead of 32-2.

“My point being, I had great confidence in my team and had great respect for them. We had to work hard to get by Ohio State (in the national semifinals). But I had great belief in that team.

“It’s funny during both games, particularly the Duke game, even though we got down a few times, I truly never thought that we wouldn’t win. When you win that many games against terrific teams, against Big East competition, you start to believe that you can walk into any gym in America and beat anybody.”

Duke felt bedeviled

Prior to the Final Four, players discussed the possibility of facing top-ranked Duke.

“The whole talk was, we’re tougher than them,” Jones said. “We know we’re tougher than them. All year they were above us in the rankings, but we were right under them. But we just knew that we were tougher.”

All the pressure was on Duke and it showed during the title game. UConn, on the other hand, looked confident and comfortable.

“We were having fun out there,” Jones said. “It looked like the Duke players were like, ‘Oh my God, we were the Gods all year long and you guys are bringing it to us.’ And once you see that look in your opponent’s face, you know that we’re breaking them down. We broke down everybody all year. And Duke was no different.”

One defensive stand and five seconds away from a remarkable upset, Calhoun gave some instructions to Jones during a Duke timeout. He figured the ball would be in the hands of star guard Trajan Langdon for the final shot.

“Trajan already had hit five threes that game,” Jones said. “My whole focus was don’t let him get a clear shot at the basket. Just guard him like a hound and don’t let him get a shot off.”

As Langdon quickly dribbled up the floor in the face of defensive pressure, he stumbled and lost the ball. Jones grabbed the ball as the buzzer sounded.

Celebration chaos ensued. Jones heaved the ball into the stands.

“A lot of people were like, ‘you’re crazy, you should have kept the ball,’” Jones said. “That ball could have gotten lost, damaged, or stolen. A lot of things could have happened, but you can’t erase the memories.”

A celebration to remember

The celebration lasted well into the night.

With no curfew, the players headed out to Ybor City, the bustling neighborhood in Tampa filled with restaurants, bars and shops. Some people recognized the Huskies, who were treated like rock stars.

Calhoun and his assistant coaches hung out at the team hotel until the wee hours of the morning. After just a few hours sleep, Calhoun and his wife, Pat, woke up at 6 a.m. The championship trophy was on the bureau where they left it, reminding them what had transpired.

“It was still there,” Calhoun said. “It wasn’t our imagination.”

The victory party continued back home.

Fans lined the roads and beeped their car horns to salute the Huskies as their bus went from the airport to campus. People lined the bridges and some got out of their cars to bow down to their heroes.

Days later, there was a parade to top all parades in Hartford.

“To be honest, we hadn’t slept in days,” Jones said. “Probably that whole week we didn’t sleep. It was just a surreal feeling to actually win it.”

Back on campus, some fans took the celebration a little too far.

“Somebody lit a small fire outside our dorm room and we had security over,” Freeman said. “Richard Hamilton couldn’t go outside of his room for two days because fans were just waiting outside. It was crazy.”

UConn has gone on to win three more national championships, but none more special or more memorable than the first one on that magical March night in St. Petersburg.

Twenty years later, Calhoun still marvels about the whole experience.

“The aftermath, still I’ve never been involved with anything like that,” he said. “I’ve watched the Red Sox and Patriots parades, I’ve been around the Super Bowl and I’ve been at the World Series, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was absolutely incredibly amazing to be a part of that.

“I think I’ve experienced a great life, great moments and wonderful things. Professionally, that experience, I’ve never had anything like it. ... The love for the kids, the love for the team and UConn, it was great.”

g.keefe@theday.com