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Dream Come True: Milestone UConn hoops title revisited

Updated: May 25

• UConn Men Mark 25th Anniversary of First NCAA Title


This article first appeared as the cover story in the April edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication — the facts in this Today Online story have been updated to include the 2024 national title UConn won earlier this month — the original magazine story was published before the 2024 national title game


By Bruce William Deckert

Today Magazine • Editor-in-Chief


THE DREAM SEASON — in UConn men’s basketball lore and history, the Dream Season was the breakthrough 1989-90 campaign, but the Huskies fell short of the Final Four in 1990 and throughout the '90s.



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After 10 years of knocking on the door, the Connecticut men finally broke through in 1999 — culminating a decade of distinction and hoops excellence with the ultimate triumph: their first NCAA championship.


Over that lengthy decade, Husky Nation journeyed from a Dream Season to the long-hoped-for consummation — the dream come true. This spring marks the 25th anniversary of that momentous national title. Since then, the UConn men’s basketball program has won five more national championships: in 2004, 2011, 2014, 2023 and this year.


Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock or hibernating with Connecticut’s numerous bears, you likely know that the Huskies reached the 2024 Final Four earlier this month as the top-ranked team in the country, and with their title-game victory they achieved back-to-back national championships. 


UConn’s six overall NCAA titles place the program in rarefied air. The Huskies are tied for the third-most Division 1 men’s titles in NCAA history. Among more than 350 schools competing in Division 1 men’s basketball, only 15 have won multiple national championships, per ​the NCAA​ website — here’s the list:


11 — UCLA

8 — Kentucky

6 — North Carolina • UConn

5 — Duke • Indiana  

4 — Kansas

3 — Villanova

2 — Cincinnati • Florida • Louisville • Michigan State • NC State • Oklahoma State • San Francisco


The Huskies’ five championships since 2000 lead the pack this century. Duke and North Carolina are next with three apiece.


TWOFOLD TITLE TOWN

For Joe D’Ambrosio, the longtime play-by-play radio voice of the Huskies on WTIC NewsTalk 1080, UConn’s title-game victory over Duke in 1999 is a vital highlight of his career.


When a UConn Today reporter asked about his most memorable broadcast moments, he replied: “The first men’s basketball championship game … because we knew everyone was hanging on every word.”


Coach Jim Calhoun was at the helm for the Huskies’ first three titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011 — in 2011 he became the fifth coach in NCAA men's basketball history to win three or more national championships, and now there are six.


He served as coach for 26 years from the 1986-87 season through 2011-12. Calhoun and UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma are both enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Auriemma arrived at UConn one year before Calhoun and has led the Huskies to 23 Final Fours — including this year’s national semifinal in his 39th season, where they fell short by just two points in the semis.


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Coach Jim Calhoun and his Huskies took a trophy back to the Storrs campus after the​ 1999 title game​ — ​photos​ ​courtesy​ of UConn Huskies

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The UConn women have achieved 11 national titles under Auriemma, the most in NCAA women’s history, and the math is simple: If the Lady Huskies win the whole enchilada again before the UCLA men, they will surpass UCLA as the most successful basketball program in NCAA championship history. The women’s first title came in 1995 via an undefeated season.


Kevin Ollie, a key guard on Calhoun’s team from 1991-95, coached the UConn men to a fourth NCAA championship in 2014 — and current coach Dan Hurley has garnered their fifth and sixth titles.


The UConn men and women have won the national championship in the same year twice, in 2004 and 2014. No other Division 1 school in any sport has accomplished this feat even once.


The two Husky programs share some additional distinctions. In NCAA title games, the UConn men are 6-0 and the UConn women are 11-0 — no other schools match these perfect marks. Their collective 17-0 slate in NCAA title games is surely in the proverbial ballpark of prestigious records that will likely never be broken.


Storrs, the small town that UConn calls home, can clearly stake a claim as the epicenter of the college basketball world.


TITLE TILT REVISITED

In 1999, after a decade of greatness with no Final Four reward, the long-awaited appearance of the UConn men in the national semifinals resulted in a showdown with Ohio State. After a 64-58 victory, led by junior All-American Richard Hamilton’s game-high 24 points, the Huskies booked a date with Duke in the championship game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.


UConn entered the contest as a decided underdog — the betting line was 9.5 points — even though both teams were No. 1 seeds and the Huskies had only two losses. Riding a 32-game winning streak, one-loss Duke featured the All-American duo of Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand.


UConn’s starting five was as follows: Hamilton, sophomore guard Khalid El-Amin, senior guard Ricky Moore, junior forward Kevin Freeman and junior center Jake Voskuhl.


From the outset, Calhoun employed an intelligent defensive strategy that contained and neutralized Brand, Duke’s consensus Player of the Year. A conventional approach to stopping a high-scoring big man is to double-team him with a guard when he receives the ball in the post.


However, if UConn took this approach, Langdon would have had opportunities for open looks from 3-point territory, and the Duke sharpshooter often made opponents pay for such defensive transgressions.


Instead, with Voskuhl guarding Brand directly, Calhoun utilized Freeman to double-team Brand. The strategy of double-teaming with a power forward rather than a guard kept Duke’s big man at bay — even though Brand scored 15 points, UConn’s defensive effort held him to just eight field-goal attempts and prevented him from finding a consistent rhythm.


Langdon still made his mark, scoring 25 points — including 5-of-10 on 3-pointers — but nothing came easy and UConn’s D limited Duke to 41 percent from the field. The Huskies shot a respectable 52.5 percent.


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UConn ​star Richard “Rip” Hamilton​ and coach Jim Calhoun​ had the last laugh vs. Duke in the 1999 title game — Duke had defeated UConn on a buzzer-beater in the Elite Eight in 1990

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Hamilton, named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, scored a game-high 27 points. Moore (13 points) and El-Amin (12) also hit double figures. Freeman and Moore each recorded 8 rebounds to lead UConn, while Brand grabbed a game-high 13. Freeman had a game-high 3 blocked shots, and El-Amin posted a team-high 4 assists.


The Huskies attempted only eight 3-pointers and made just three, but one was Hamilton’s dagger 3 with 3:30 left that gave UConn a 73-68 lead.


With about a minute left and UConn clinging to a one-point lead, El-Amin hit arguably the biggest basket of his UConn career— a clutch floater from the left baseline that gave the Huskies a three-point cushion.


After two Duke free throws cut the margin to one again, El-Amin air-balled his next shot, giving Duke the possession with 24 seconds left and a golden chance to win the championship.


Let’s pause the play-by-play for a moment to note that Calhoun is known for teaching tough and intense defense, not flashy offense.


His coaching style is marked by grit, tenacity and resilience — so it’s fitting that the decisive endgame moment in UConn’s first title conquest was not a buzzer-beating shot but rather a clutch defensive stop.


As the clock counted down and the championship was hanging in the balance, Duke gave the basketball to Langdon on the perimeter and he penetrated the lane — closely guarded by Moore, UConn’s stalwart defensive savant. As Langdon spun and picked up his dribble, Moore staunchly held his ground and the Duke star committed a traveling violation with 5 seconds left.


It’s no surprise that Basketball News Magazine named Moore the 1998-99 National Defensive Player of the Year.


Duke was forced to foul on the ensuing inbounds play. After El-Amin hit two ice-in-the-veins free throws to give UConn a three-point lead again, Duke had one last gasp, but Langdon lost possession as he tried to find room for a tying 3-pointer and time expired.


Hamilton’s smooth scoring was surely essential for UConn, but Moore’s defensive brilliance made all the difference in the closing seconds — and that, sports fans, is how the Huskies forged a 77-74 victory and claimed their first NCAA title.


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POP QUIZ RECAP

At this juncture, let’s catch our breath after such a rush of March Madness facts, figures, trivia and adrenaline-fueled play-by-play.


Slowly breathe in and breathe out … calmly inhale and exhale … and if you are pressed for time, feel free to disembark this basketball roller coaster now. Yet if you decide to keep reading, please be sure your seatbelt is secured for the remainder of the ride.


OK, for those who are still with us, let’s conclude our time-machine journey — whereby we’ve partied like it’s 1999, to borrow the Prince lyric — by recapping with a pop quiz via one basic question. So basic, actually, that you might think it’s designed to determine who has been minimally paying attention, or who simply has a pulse:


How many basketball national championships have the UConn men won?


Presumably, the answer can be summoned from your memory of the facts presented earlier in this story, or by rereading to confirm the correct number. The clock is counting down — before the buzzer sounds, what is your answer? Based on those earlier facts, the resounding and unanimous response is as follows — six!


Right? Yes, of course, you say.


However, here’s a news flash: Six is inaccurate — really and truly! Indeed, this is a classic example of what could be characterized as a trick question, or perhaps a riddle.


The right answer is that the UConn men have amassed seven national championships, and here’s why: The Huskies won the National Invitation Tournament (aka NIT) in 1988 under Calhoun. The calculation is straightforward: Six NCAA titles plus one NIT title equals seven national championships overall.


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UConn ​defeated Ohio State in the 1999 Final Four — Edmund Saunders, Richard​ Hamilton, Ricky Moore​ and Khalid El-Amin were key players on the title team — all four were high school Parade All-Americans

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Someone might object and contend that six is also a correct answer, that identifying seven titles as the answer is nitpicking and splitting hairs — or in this case, NITpicking.


Yes, it’s true that arriving at the right answer depends on how national title is precisely defined, yet accuracy and veracity are surely important in sports as in every other arena of life.


So let’s aim to be accurate while also allowing for paradoxical both/and answers to the tricky questions and riddles that attend topics of all sorts — from sports and politics to the economy and society to philosophy and faith.


Meanwhile, the Huskies returned to the NIT in 1989, coming seven points short of the semis, and their postseason success in back-to-back years proved to be a harbinger of the Dream Season breakthrough of 1989-90.


The UConn women first qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 1989 and have played in each tourney since for three-plus decades — so we can deduce by the most rudimentary logic that, ironically, the men’s 1988 NIT title year was the last time the Lady Huskies missed the Big Dance.


The NIT was established in 1938 and the Division I men’s NCAA Tournament debuted in 1939. For many years the National Invitation Tournament was considered more prominent, but over time the NCAA tourney superseded the NIT. 


A poll of college hoops observers would likely identify the 1960s as the decade when the NCAA tourney became preeminent — in 1964, UCLA began its remarkable run of 10 NCAA championships in 12 years under legendary coach John Wooden. He retired after winning his 10th title in 1975, and the Bruins claimed their 11th in 1995.


These days, while the NCAA manages both the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament, the NIT is considered a secondary competition — but in 1999, for the first time in program history, the UConn men were second to none in the NCAA hoops universe. +


Related News — plentiful photos and more stories about UConn's 1999 national title — Today Magazine: April edition


Today editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert previously worked at ESPN Digital Media, Imprint Newspapers and The Master’s School in West Simsbury — he is an award-winning journalist who believes that everyone on the planet merits awards daily when they leverage their God-given gifts for good


Today Magazine covers community news that matters nationwide, focusing on the heart of Connecticut’s Farmington Valley — the five core towns of Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury


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