top of page

This Day in College Basketball History: March 29, 1999 - UConn wins first ever National Championship, beats Duke 77-74, in the "Shock the World" game

1999 marked the beginning of the "New Blood" dynasty in Storrs, Connecticut.

PIC: Andy Lyons, Getty Images



In many ways, 1999 marked the pinnacle of the changing tides for UConn. When Jim Calhoun took over in 1986, the Huskies were far from the team & program we see now. They hadn't reached the NCAA tournament in 7 years, recruits were getting purged by other prominent programs, and they were on a streak of four straight losing seasons. It was safe to say UConn was on a fast-track to hellish conditions.


But thirteen years after Calhoun - who was Northeastern's head coach for fourteen years - took the post at UConn, there was significant improvement. The "Dream Team" of 1990 with Chris Smith, Scott Burrell, and Tate George (among others) brought UConn back to national prominence, getting as far as an Elite 8. UConn reached two more Elite 8's and three Sweet 16's up until 1999, but still hadn't crossed the bridge of winning their coveted National Championship.


1998-99 was the most promising season for UConn in many ways. The Huskies returned their top three scorers from the year prior in Rip Hamilton, Kevin Freeman, and Khalid El-Amin, who accounted for a combined 47.5 points per game. Hamilton was nearly persuaded to test the NBA Draft waters, but Jim Calhoun changed his mind and kept him at UConn - it's widely believed Hamilton staying encouraged Kevin Freeman to choose the same fate. Big man Jake Voskhul had taken a big step forward, with aspirations to compete for a future NBA Draft spot. 6-foot-8 Edmund Saunders, who was academically ineligible the year before, was poised to make a splash in his first year. And it all finally came together in the regular season.


The season started on a 19-0 tear, and it was through no cakewalk of a schedule, either. The Huskies defeated five ranked opponents before they even lost a game: #14 Washington, #9 Michigan State, #18 Pitt, #25 Miami, and #9 St. John's. Injuries started to plague the team in early February, and a 17-point home blunder to #16 Syracuse gave them their first loss. Miami, who was then a Big East member, gave them another home loss just a few weeks later. UConn's last two games of the regular season were both won handily, with a 7-point win over Providence and a redemption win against Syracuse on the road in 70-58 fashion.


March came around, and with it came postseason basketball. Despite a near upset in the first round against Seton Hall, UConn won its second consecutive Big East Tournament, and its fourth since 1990. They finished the season ranked third overall in the nation, and were the top seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies cruised through the first few rounds, taking care of #16 UTSA, #9 New Mexico, and #5 Iowa. They survived in a five-point battle against the pesky #10 Gonzaga, who Dan Monson's group led to upsets against Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida.


Despite UConn's success and boasting a 28-2 record heading into March Madness, all eyes were on Duke, who were the #1 overall seed in 1999. The Blue Devils had a roster loaded with future NBA talent - Shane Battier, Elton Brand, William Avery, and Corey Maggette all had stints for NBA teams. For as good as the Huskies were all season, Duke only fell once - an early-season loss to Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout was widely thought to be a fluke.


All attention turned to Tropicana Field, where a National Champion would be crowned. Duke took care of #1 Michigan State, 68-62, and UConn withstood #4 Ohio State 64-58. The stage was set for a square-off of the two best teams in the nation.

Now, it's important to understand that Duke's pedigree was in its epitome in the 1990s. Coach K, although a few years longer into his stint at Duke than Calhoun was at UConn, felt significantly ahead of Calhoun's success at the time. Under Coach K, the Blue Devils had won four ACC Tournaments, were ACC Regular Season champs seven times, and had gone to the NCAA Tournament fifteen times in the last sixteen years. Duke had gone to ten Sweet Sixteens in Coach K's nineteen-year tenure, made nine Elite 8 appearances, and made the Final 4 eight times. They were runners-up three times, and hoisted the National Championship twice. Much of America expected Duke to win this game given their recent success, as lines closed with UConn as a -9.5 underdog. Multiple TV networks showed videos of a raucous Duke fanbase from Durham, NC, already celebrating their championship victory over UConn before the game was even played. It irked the UConn players, who were huddled around the hotel room TV watching Duke fans in their glory.


But it pulled them together. Jim Calhoun knew this would be a Rip Hamilton legacy game, and combined with Khalid El-Amin and Kevin Freeman's leadership, he was calm, cool, and collected about the Huskies' chances. It was a team, by Calhoun's admission, that was experienced and determined - the winning ingredients for a national title.


Khalid El-Amin kept the analysis simple - "we plan to shock the world today."



And so began what would eventually become the "Shock the World" game for UConn faithful.


Duke started off hot out of the gates, with a 9-2 break to start the game, but UConn clawed its way back to keep it close. Halftime led to a 39-37 Duke lead, but UConn came out as the second half aggressor as they'd done all year. They got out to a 48-43 lead, then 57-53, then 65-59 with less than 9 minutes to go. Duke, finally fed up with yet another twenty-plus performance from Rip Hamilton, put the defensive clamps on, and held the Huskies without a field goal until the sub-five-minute-mark. It was all locked at 66.


After the teams traded baskets, it was tied at 68. Rip Hamilton sank two free throws, Duke's William Avery turned the ball over, and Hamilton drained a three. It was 73-68. Duke sank another free throw, and Trajan Langdon countered Hamilton's three with one of his own. A UConn basket and two Duke free throws made it 75-74, and when UConn reclaimed possession, Khalid El-Amin missed a shot. Duke collected the basketball with 19 seconds left, and just like that, it was a one point game down the stretch, and Duke had possession.


Coach K, who had a timeout to spend, declined. Instead, he put the ball in Trajan Langdon's hands. He traveled. It was UConn's ball with 5.4 seconds left. Khalid El-Amin was fouled on the inbound - he sank both free throws.


And just like that, after a game that changed leads 14 times, the UConn Huskies won their first national championship.


Many declare this game one of the best NCAA Championships of all-time, and rightfully so. 1999 is a team that is forever etched in the annals of UConn Basketball history; it set the standard for the dominance we see from UConn today.



Comments


bottom of page